Ghazni (Afghanistan) (AFP) - The fight for the eastern Afghan city of Ghazni entered its third day as Taliban militants and security forces engaged in heavy clashes Sunday, despite Kabul's claim that the city was firmly under government control.
An AFP reporter on the ground said Taliban fighters continued to roam the city, torching government offices, and were in control of several police checkpoints, as reinforcements deployed from Kabul slowly entered the area to confront the insurgents.
Residents hid in their homes or attempted to flee the fighting, with basic provisions increasingly scarce and expensive, according to residents and officials.
"The situation is chaotic," Amanullah Kamrani, deputy head of the Ghazni provincial council, told AFP from Kabul.
"In Ghazni, only the police headquarters, governor's office and a few departments are under Afghan forces' control -- the rest are under the Taliban fighters' control," he added.
Ghazni resident Rahmatullah Andar described similar scenes in an interview with broadcaster Tolonews, saying fighting continued to rage in large swathes of the city and outlying districts.
"There are not sufficient forces to repel the Taliban fighters. We have not witnessed such a large scale attack by the Taliban before," said Andar.
Mobile services in the city remained down after militants damaged a telecommunication tower and targeted several media offices in Ghazni, making information difficult to verify.
The descriptions stood in stark contrast to statements from Afghan and US officials, who said government forces were firmly in control of the city and vowed that Ghazni was in no danger of being seized by the Taliban.
The Afghan military said a clearance operation targeting Taliban fighters was ongoing, insisting they remained in control of key government offices.
"The Taliban are hiding in people's houses and shops... to avoid civilian casualties our forces are moving in slowly," said General Sharif Yaftali, Afghanistan's top military official, during a press conference Sunday.
Following the press conference, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani delivered a televised speech to mark International Youth Day where he touched on various topics from the economy to the upcoming elections, but made no reference to the ongoing fight for Ghazni.
The omission during the nearly hour-long address sparked heated reactions online, with social media users chiding the president for failing to address the bloody battle for the city.
"The Presidential Office is busy with a celebration of Youth Day where gov picked speakers shower it with praise that would make Soviet era leaders blush. Meanwhile, a mere 100kms away, fighting over the control of Ghazni city continues,” tweeted Saad Mohseni, director of the media conglomerate Moby Group.
“#Ghazni is burning in fire & dead bodies covered the streets but our president calmly with a smile on his face participated in a long & useless event in his palace in #Kabul,” wrote Zakarya Hassani, another Afghan Twitter user.
Ghazni -- around two hours by road from the capital Kabul -- has been under increasing danger from massing Taliban fighters for months, with reports suggesting insurgents had infiltrated the city at will.
The onslaught was the latest attempt by the Taliban to overrun an urban centre and comes as pressure increases on the insurgents to begin peace talks with the government to end the nearly 17-year-old war.
The attack was the largest tactical operation launched by the Taliban since an unprecedented truce in June brought fighting between security forces and the Taliban to a temporary pause, providing war-weary Afghans some welcome relief.
The battle for Ghazni continued as news broke that a Taliban delegation had travelled to Uzbekistan last week to discuss the Afghan peace process and withdrawal of foreign forces with its northern neighbour.
The meetings in Uzbekistan follow recent reports that the Taliban has also sent similar delegations to China, illustrating the group's rising ambitions to engage in independent talks with foreign governments.