Taliban fighters overran three provincial capitals, including the strategic city of Kunduz and Sar-e Pol in the north of the country on August 8, local officials and a spokesman for the militants said, as the group stepped up its northern offensive and threatened more urban centers.
The militants have already taken two provincial capitals since August 6, but Kunduz, a northeastern city of some 375,000 inhabitants, would be the most significant to fall since the Taliban launched an all-out offensive in May as U.S.-led forces began the final stages of their withdrawal scheduled to be completed by the end of the month.
Taliban fighters seized key government buildings in the city of Kunduz, leaving government forces hanging onto control of the airport and their own base, a provincial assembly lawmaker said on August 8.
Provincial lawmaker Amruddin Wali in Kunduz told Reuters that the militants had taken key buildings in the city, raising fears that it could be the latest to fall to the Taliban. The main prison building in Kunduz was under Taliban control, he said.
"Heavy clashes started yesterday afternoon. All government headquarters are in the control of the Taliban. Only the army base and the airport is with ANDSF (Afghan security forces) from where they are resisting the Taliban," Wali said.
But the Afghan Defense Ministry denied that Kunduz had fallen, saying in a statement that commandos have launched a clearance operation in the city. The ministry said the main roundabout in the city center was recaptured and the national TV building had been cleared of Taliban fighters.
In Kunduz, an Afghan security forces spokesman said that "extremely [heavy] fighting is going on."
"The enemies have intensified attacks in the city of Kunduz over the past 24 hours, during which they suffered heavy casualties,” Taj Mohammad, an Afghan forces commando leader, said.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said the group had largely captured the government's buildings, including the National Directorate of Security, and were close to the airport.
In comments to Al-Jazeera TV, a spokesman for the extremist group's political office said the latest military action was taken in reaction to "government attacks" and said there was no agreement for a cease-fire with Kabul's forces.
Health officials in Kunduz said that 14 bodies, including those of women and children, and more than 30 injured people had been taken to hospital.
The Taliban also appeared to be in control of the northern provincial capital of Sar-e Pol, driving officials out of the main city to a nearby military base, Mohammad Noor Rahmani, a provincial council member of Sar-e Pol province, said.
"Government headquarters, including the governor's house, police command, and the National Directorate of Security compound are captured by the Taliban," Rahmani said.
"Sar-e-Pol fell today at 3:45 a.m. (local time). The Taliban has occupied the capital of Sar-e-Poul Province," Abdul Haq Shafaq, the provincial governor, told RFE/RL's Radio Azadi on August 8.
Nabila Habibi, the head of the provincial women's affairs department in Sar-e Pol, described a dire situation for her and other women who worked on behalf of women’s rights. She told Radio Azadi that she feared for her life and those of the other women who worked in the field.
"Today I received a message from the national security office, who themselves may have fled around the city, that I should leave the city because [Taliban militants] have issued my death order," Habibi said from Sar-e Pol.
She said it was clear that the Taliban “never want women to be present or active in society, especially in politics” and have never accepted women's rights activists. She said she had been threatened many times by the Taliban and in the past three days had been warned over the phone.
A third city, Taloqan, fell to the Taliban on August 8, Radio Azadi reported. Several civil society activists and residents of Takhar spoke to Radio Azadi by phone, saying the city had been seized after the militants captured the central prison, freeing all the prisoners.
The sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal, said the entire province has fallen.
All local officials and security personnel have retreated toward the Farkhar district, Radio Azadi reported, based on local information.
In another northern province, Takhar, a local police source and an official said the provincial capital, Taloqan, was also under pressure, with civilians trying to flee the city and heavy fighting taking place after the Taliban seized some government buildings. There are also reports of heavy fighting in Faiz Abad, the capital of Badakhshan Province.
On August 6, the Taliban seized a first provincial capital, Zaranj in the remote southwestern Nimroz Province, followed a day later by Sheberghan, the capital of the northern Jawzjan Province.
In Sheberghan, a police official told Radio Azadi that the Taliban had set fire to the palace of warlord and longtime foe of the militant group Abdul Rashid Dostum and the Jawzjan provincial office building. The officials spoke to Radio Azadi on condition of anonymity.
Sources quoted by TOLOnews said that Babur Ishchi, the head of the Jawzjan provincial council, had surrendered to the Taliban.
Dostum, who only returned to Afghanistan this week from medical treatment in Turkey, is currently in Kabul, where he was meeting with President Ashraf Ghani on August 7 in an attempt to persuade the country's leader to fly in reinforcements.
"We have demanded that the government deploys at least 500 commandos so we could work to retake the city," said Ehsan Niro, a spokesman for Dostum's party.
Dostum, a warlord with a fearsome reputation fighting the Taliban in the 1990s, has also faced accusations that his forces massacred thousands of Taliban prisoners of war.
In a first respite for Afghan forces, U.S. warplanes bombed Taliban positions in Sheberghan on August 7.
"U.S. forces have conducted several air strikes in defense of our Afghan partners in recent days," Major Nicole Ferrara, a Central Command spokesperson, told AFP in Washington.
Fighting was also reported on the outskirts of the major cities of Herat, in the west, and Lashkar Gah and Kandahar in the south.
In Lashkar Gah, provincial council member Majid Akhund said government air strikes damaged a health clinic and high school in the city, which is the capital of Helmand Province.
A Defense Ministry statement confirmed that air strikes were carried out in parts of the city of Lashkar Gah. It said strikes targeted Taliban positions, killing 54 fighters and wounding 23 others, but made no mention of a clinic or a school being bombed.
The U.S. Central Command said the troop withdrawal is more than 95 percent complete and will be finished by August 31.
This story includes reporting by RFE/RL's Radio Azadi correspondents on the ground in Afghanistan. Their names are being withheld for their protection.