KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Fighting erupted anew in the embattled northern Afghan city of Kunduz on Tuesday after the Taliban attacked a police headquarters overnight and officials warned that food and other emergency aid cannot get through to the city.
The clashes and the dire warnings underscored the tenuous hold authorities have on Kunduz, a strategic city whose brief fall to the Taliban last week was an embarrassing blow to President Ashraf Ghani. The Afghan government has also been criticized for ignoring warnings of the city's vulnerability to Taliban attack.
The bombing early Saturday of a hospital in Kunduz operated by Doctors Without Borders — in which at least 22 people were killed — has raised wider questions as to the circumstances that led to the prominent medical charity being hit in a U.S. airstrike.
Joanne Liu, the president of Doctors Without Borders, continued the charity's harsh criticism of the U.S. and Afghan military and civilian authorities with a statement reiterating assertions that the bombing of the hospital was deliberate.
"Statements from the Afghanistan government have claimed that Taliban forces were using the hospital to fire on coalition forces. These statements imply that Afghan and U.S. forces working together decided to raze to the ground a fully functioning hospital, which amounts to an admission of a war crime," Liu said in a statement Tuesday.
At least 12 staff and 10 patients, including three children, were killed in the bombing, and 37 people were injured, including 19 staffers, the group has said. The incident is being investigated, with preliminary results expected in the coming days.
Contradictory statements from Afghan and U.S. officials have added confusion to the murky picture of what happened in the early hours of Saturday morning.
After initial reports from U.S. forces in Afghanistan that the airstrike had been launched because U.S. forces on the ground were under threat, the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, Gen. John F. Campbell on Monday said that Afghan forces had requested the airstrike because they were taking fire from enemy positions.
Doctors Without Borders said this was an admission by the U.S. that it had attacked the Kunduz facility.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said a painstaking and objective investigation of what went wrong in Kunduz must be carried out so that a repeat of such tragedies can be avoided.
"It is important now that we get all the facts on the table," Stoltenberg told a news conference at NATO headquarters in Brussels. "Then we'll have a much better foundation to draw conclusions and to look into how the different operations are conducted to make sure that we do everything possible to avoid something similar from happening again."
Afghanistan's Ministry of Public Health also called for "a thorough, impartial investigation by an independent enquiry team" into the bombing, saying it had seriously impacted the ability of the health sector to function adequately across the war-torn country.
The ministry said the attack had jeopardized "vital health, medical and surgical work of international and local health personnel" working in Afghanistan. "Staff no longer feel safe in any health facility anywhere in the country. And some international health organizations are questioning whether the risks of staying in the country are just too high after such an attack," it said in a statement.
The Taliban managed to overrun and hold Kunduz for three days last week, until government forces launched a counter-offensive on Thursday. The insurgents have since largely been pushed out, but skirmishes have continued for days on the outskirts, and residents have reported militants moving into the center of the city, including the main square, for brief but fierce gun battles with security forces.
Ghani told a cabinet meeting the Taliban were no different from other insurgent groups, criminal gangs and drug traffickers operating in Afghanistan. "We are trying to bring rule of law, security and prosperity, and protect the people, but terrorists are spreading fear and violence, threatening and killing our people," a statement Tuesday from Ghani's office quoted him as saying.
Overnight, several militants attacked the Kunduz police headquarters and other government buildings, said Sarwar Hussaini, the spokesman for the provincial police chief.
By Tuesday morning, some gunmen had pushed their way close to city center. "Fighting is also going on with the Taliban near the Ghazanfar Bank, close to the main square," Hussaini said.
Kunduz residents reported hit-and-run attacks by the Taliban, with the insurgents making incursions into the city center from far-flung rural areas, engaging troops, then retreating again.
Abdul Manan, a resident who spoke to The Associated Press by telephone, said he had seen a group of Taliban fighters enter the main square, remove the national flag and exchange fire with troops for half an hour, then flee from the area.
With the Taliban blitz, shops closed and people shuttered in their homes, the humanitarian situation has steadily worsened. Deliveries of food and other basic essentials have not been able to enter since the Sept. 28 Taliban assault.
Aslim Sayas, a deputy head of the Afghan disaster management agency, said it was still too dangerous and unpredictable for supplies to be trucked into Kunduz. Instead, he said authorities were helping residents who had fled the city.
"Right now we are providing food and non-food items to refugees and displaced people in Takhar, Badakhshan and Balkh," he said, referring to northern provinces to the east and west of Kunduz.
Medicines, too, have not been delivered to hospitals, and the airstrike on the Doctors Without Borders trauma center had closed an essential medical facility in city.
Associated Press writers Lynne O'Donnell and Humayoon Babur in Kabul, Afghanistan, and John-Thor Dahlburg in Brussels contributed to this report.