US launches airstrikes as Taliban attack Afghan city

U.S. Central Command commander Gen. Jospeh Votel testifies at the Senate Committee on Armed Services on Capitol Hill in Washington

US launches airstrikes as Taliban attack Afghan city

United States forces launched airstrikes on Friday to counter a major Taliban assault on an Afghan provincial capital, where terrified residents cowered in their homes amid explosions and gunfire as security forces fought to beat the insurgents back.

All shops were closed, they said, as was the highway from the capital of Kabul to Afghanistan's southern provinces that runs through Ghazni.

Lt. Col. Martin O'Donnell, a spokesman for USA forces in Afghanistan, said American forces and US attack helicopters had assisted Afghan troops in pushing back the Taliban during the night's multiple attacks in Ghazni.

The attack around 80 miles south of Kabul was the militants' second all-out assault on a provincial capital this year and was one of their most audacious operations to date.

The overnight attack in the southeastern city of Ghazni, the capital of a province with the same name, also wounded at least 20 members of the security forces, said Baz Mohammad Hemat, the administrator of the Ghazni city hospital.

Afghan soldiers fought back as the heavily-armed militants converged from four sides of the province, resulting in multiple casualties on all sides, Ghazni government spokesman Mohammad Arif Noori told CNN.

There were still Taliban fighters who had hunkered down in elevated positions from which they were still shooting, the residents said, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear for their safety.

A spokesman for President Ashraf Ghani said the Taliban had suffered heavy casualties in the onslaught and confirmed the airstrikes.

Ghazni police chief General Farid Ahmad Mashal said the Taliban seized several parts of the city, which has been under threat for months with heavy fighting in surrounding districts. "Another failed attempt by Taliban to seize terrain, while creating strategically inconsequential headlines", it continued.

The Taliban frequently exaggerate their battlefield gains and downplay losses incurred during fighting.

Afghan forces have been struggling to hold back the resurgent militant group since the withdrawal of North Atlantic Treaty Organisation combat forces at the end of 2014. "There has not been a single minute of silence for the last eight hours", said a senior government official in Ghazni.

In May the Taliban attacked the western city of Farah.

"Asian countries including China are continuing their efforts for peace talks in Afghanistan and we warmly welcome their efforts and hope that these efforts finaly bring the Taliban to the negotiation table", said deputy spokesman to CEO Abdullah Abdullah Omaid Maisam. The Taliban have rebuffed offers of negotiations with the government but have held one preliminary round of direct talks with Alice Wells, Washington's top diplomat for South and Central Asia, including Afghanistan.

Secret talks were recently held in Qatar between Taliban and USA officials after an unprecedented three-day ceasefire during Eid celebrations in June that was largely respected by both sides.

Forces in Afghanistan are applying military pressure on the Taliban to convince them to enter talks toward reconciliation with the Afghan government, Votel noted.

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