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Taliban Attacks Northern Afghan City Of Kunduz

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

The city of Kunduz in Northern Afghanistan used to be a major Taliban stronghold. That was before they were removed from power by the U.S.-led invasion 14 years ago. But today, the Afghan Taliban tried to take Kunduz back. Hundreds of fighters stormed in before dawn. They took over key buildings, seized control of a large part of the city. And by nightfall, the Taliban's white flag was flying over the main square. We're joined by NPR's Philip Reeves who's monitoring events there. Hi, Philip.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Hi.

SIEGEL: And has Kunduz actually fallen to the Taliban?

REEVES: Well, they've certainly taken, you know, a significant part of the city, at least for now. They broke into, among other places, the city jail and freed hundreds of prisoners, and they also took over a hospital and a number of other government buildings. The Taliban's website claims that they overran a police headquarters and a number of police check posts, and they seized weapons. And they're talking of targeting the provincial governor's compound.

SIEGEL: They tried this earlier this year. What changed today?

REEVES: This was on a much larger scale. It - and it also seems to be in a multipronged attack which shows that the Taliban, after a number of setbacks, is still capable of mounting coordinated and very big assaults.

SIEGEL: What kind of a city is Kunduz, and what's happening to the residents of Kunduz who are caught up in all this?

REEVES: Well, it's a city of some 300,000-plus people. It used to be a very wealthy city, and it's considered to be the kind of gateway to Central Asia because the province that it's in borders Tajikistan. As for the residents, we understand that a lot of them are hiding today in their basements. There's been fierce fighting off and on all day. The cell phone coverage is poor, and there's no electricity. Some have tried to flee. And there are, of course, injuries which are likely to involve civilians.

Medecins Sans Frontieres, the international agency, has a trauma center there. They say they've been flat out all day. Some hours ago, they put out some numbers saying that more than 100 people have been wounded who they've treated, and of that number, 36 were critically injured. We don't have any numbers for the death toll in all this yet.

SIEGEL: And how is the Afghan government responding to all this?

REEVES: They're saying that the situation is fluid and that they sent in reinforcements. It's yet to be seen whether those reinforcements will be effective. This is, you know, a major test for the government of President Ashraf Ghani which is about to mark its first anniversary in power. You know, this assault is being seen as the biggest breach of a provincial city in Afghanistan since the Taliban were thrown out of power.

SIEGEL: Philip, can you tell whether the Afghan forces put up a strong fight? Did they maintain discipline in the face of this assault on Kunduz?

REEVES: We just don't, at this stage, know enough about how the fight played out. All reports from there are patchy not least because of the very poor cell phone network. We do know, though, that this is a really big test of the Afghan National Security Forces, a test of whether after years of very costly U.S.-led training, they're actually up to the job. And it's taking place in the context of what's looking like a bad year for Afghanistan. You know, the combat mission there ended some nine months ago, so the international forces and the Americans have drawn down very dramatically. And yet, this year, according to U.N. statistics, if you count injuries as well as death, civilian casualties in Afghanistan are running at record levels.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's Philip Reeves. Phil thanks.

REEVES: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.