File photo of an Afghan policeman walks outside a prison building after an attack in Ghazni province, Afghanistan September 14, 2015. Taliban insurgents stormed a mud fort being used as a prison, killing police and releasing more than 400 inmates. (Photo: Reuters)
Explosions and sporadic gunfire rocked the outskirts of Ghazni Tuesday after the Taliban attempted to storm the south-eastern city, as the insurgents tighten their grip across Afghanistan following their lightning capture of another provincial capital.
Afghan forces repelled the brazen assault on Monday, but it rang security alarm bells as the largely rural insurgency threatens large cities for the first time in 14 years.
The violence, which left the streets of Ghazni deserted, follows the Taliban's three-day occupation of northern Kunduz city and other attempts by militants to overrun provincial capitals in the north.
Around 2,000 insurgents attacked Ghazni from several directions on Monday, coming as close as five kilometres (three miles) to the city, deputy provincial governor Mohammad Ali Ahmadi said.
"But they were quickly pushed back by Afghan forces," Ahmadi told AFP.
"Military reinforcements have arrived from neighbouring provinces to secure the city."
The fighting left the streets of Ghazni largely empty for a second day as many panicked residents tried to flee towards the capital Kabul.
In Kunduz, meanwhile, Afghan forces claim to have wrested back control, with the Taliban on Tuesday admitting that they had tactically retreated from the main intersections, markets and other government buildings.
Afghan soldiers, backed by NATO special forces, are still combing the city to flush out pockets of insurgents hiding in civilian homes.
The fall of Kunduz on September 28 was a stinging blow to Western-trained Afghan forces, who have largely been fighting on their own since the end of NATO's combat mission in December.
As fighting spreads in neighbouring provinces such as Badakhshan and Takhar, concerns are mounting that the seizure of Kunduz was merely the opening gambit in a new, bolder strategy to tighten the insurgency's grip across northern Afghanistan.
It raised the prospect of a domino effect of big cities falling into the hands of the Taliban for the first time since they were toppled from power in a 2001 US-led invasion.
The militants last week attempted to overrun Maimana, the capital of Faryab province, but were pushed back by Afghan forces with the aid of pro-government militias.
The emboldened insurgents have stepped up attacks around Afghanistan since they launched their annual summer offensive in late April.
The Taliban on Monday declared Tolo and 1TV, two of Afghanistan's biggest television networks, as legitimate "military targets", accusing them of fabricating reports that Taliban fighters raped women at a female hostel during their occupation of Kunduz.
A Taliban suicide bomber on Sunday targeted a British military convoy in Kabul in a rush-hour attack that wounded at least three civilians including a child.
In another setback to coalition forces, NATO confirmed Monday that two Americans and a Frenchman were among five people killed in a helicopter crash in Kabul.
The defence ministry in London had confirmed two British fatalities on Sunday, ruling out any insurgent activity behind the incident.
NATO forces are under pressure after a US air strike on October 3 pummelled a hospital in Kunduz run by Doctors Without Borders (MSF), killing at least 12 staff and 10 patients.
The medical charity shut down the trauma centre, branding the incident a "war crime" and demanding an international investigation into the incident, which sparked an avalanche of global condemnation.
The Pentagon announced Saturday it would make compensation payments for those killed or injured in the strike, while suggesting that US forces in Afghanistan could also pay for repairs to the hospital.
But MSF Sunday said it had officially not received any compensation offer, adding that it would not accept funds for repairs in line with its policy of rejecting support from governments.