Afghan troops continue to battle Taliban militants for the control of the Spin Boldak border crossing with Pakistan which the militants had reportedly occupied as part of a sweeping offensive ahead of the August 31 deadline for the pullout of U.S. forces from the war-torn country.
The fighting over Spin Boldak came amid reports of an upcoming round of talks between the government and the militant group in Qatar and a special conference on Afghanistan to be hosted soon by neighboring Pakistan.
But the conference appears in doubt as a top Afghan official accused Pakistan of providing militants air cover in the border region.
The strategically important border crossing provides direct access to Pakistan's Balochistan Province, where the Taliban's senior leadership, as well as a pool of reserve fighters for the militant group, are believed to be based.
Residents of Spin Boldak, which reportedly fell to the militants on July 14, said there was heavy fighting in the border town's main bazaar.
AFP correspondents on the ground reported that dozens of wounded militants were being treated at a Pakistani hospital near the border following fierce overnight clashes.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani renewed his criticism of Pakistan for what he called support to the Taliban and urged Islamabad to use its influence and leverage for peace in Afghanistan.
“Intelligence estimates indicate the influx of over 10,000 jihadi fighters from Pakistan and other places in the last month, as well as support from their affiliates and the transnational terrorist organizations,” Ghani said at a regional summit in Uzbekistan on July 16.
Reuters confirmed its award-winning journalist, Danish Siddiqui, was killed on July 16 in what an Afghan commander called Taliban cross fire during a battle to retake the main market area of Spin Boldak.
In Kabul, Afghan Vice President Amrullah Saleh accused the Pakistani military of providing "close air support to Taliban in certain areas."
Saleh said on Twitter that Pakistan's air forces also warned the Afghan Army not to launch air strikes against the Taliban near the border.
Pakistan strongly denied the claim, with a Foreign Ministry statement saying the country "took necessary measures within its territory to safeguard our own troops and population."
"We acknowledge the Afghan government's right to undertake actions on its sovereign territory," it said.
“The Afghan side conveyed to Pakistan its intention of carrying out air operations inside its territory opposite Chaman Sector of Pakistan. Pakistan responded positively to the Afghan Government’s right to act in its territory,” the statement said.
The Taliban has also reportedly closed in on the stronghold of warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum, a longtime foe of the militant group.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said Dostum's militia forces had fled Sheberghan, capital of the northern Jowzjan Province bordering Turkmenistan, and the militants had "captured the gate" of the city.
The deputy governor of Jowzjan confirmed that the Taliban had reached the gates of the provincial capital, but said government forces were pushing back against the militants.
Police in the northeastern province of Kapisa said a provincial deputy governor was killed in heavy clashes between security forces and the militants in the Nijrab district on July 16.
Aziz-ur-Rehman Tawab had been visiting security forces in Nijrab, a provincial police spokesperson told RFE/RL.
The militants have taken control of Kapisa’s Tagab and Alasai districts in recent weeks and have launched attacks on Nijrab and other parts of the province.
As fighting continued, there were signs too that official talks in Qatar's capital, Doha -- which have stalled for months -- could come back to life, with a senior Afghan delegation arriving in the Gulf state on July 16.
The 10-member delegation is led by Abdullah Abdullah, the head of the High Council for National Reconciliation, who said the team is an inclusive one and represents all of Afghanistan.
On July 16, the Pakistani government said a special conference on Afghanistan that should have taken place in Islamabad over the weekend has been postponed and a new date will be announced later. Taliban representatives were not invited to Islamabad.
On July 15, the Taliban proposed a three-month cease-fire in exchange for the release of 7,000 of its fighters, according to an Afghan government negotiator.
"It is a big demand," Ahmad Nader Naderi, a key member of the government team involved in peace talks with the Taliban, told a news conference in Kabul on July 15.
The Afghan government last year released more than 5,000 Taliban prisoners to help kick start peace talks in Doha, but negotiations have so far failed to reach any political settlement.
This story includes reporting by Radio Azadi correspondents on the ground in Afghanistan. Their names are being withheld for their protection.