Taliban Fighters Storm Afghan Provincial Capital

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People take selfies with alleged Taliban militants as a group of Taliban visits to greet people as a goodwill gesture amid a three-day cease-fire on second day of Eid al-Fitr, in Ghazni, Afghanistan, 16 June 2018.

People take selfies with alleged Taliban militants as a group of Taliban visits to greet people as a goodwill gesture amid a three-day cease-fire on second day of Eid al-Fitr, in Ghazni, Afghanistan, 16 June 2018.


Photo:

str/EPA/Shutterstock

KABUL—Taliban fighters stormed a provincial capital in eastern Afghanistan early Friday, setting fire to government offices and laying siege to the police headquarters, local officials and residents said, as insurgents sought to put pressure on the Afghan government ahead of an expected cease-fire later this month.

Heavy fighting was continuing after daybreak in Ghazni, capital of the province of the same name, and the Afghan military was deploying additional forces in a bid to prevent crucial landmarks in the city from falling under the insurgents’ control, said

Nasir Faqiri,

a member of the provincial council.

Reports on the status of the fighting were murky and contradictory.

Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said on Twitter that insurgents had taken over a majority of the government’s administrative offices in Ghazni, along with the police headquarters and district police stations. Dozens of government security forces have been killed, he added.

While Mr. Faqiri said Ghazni was facing “disaster,” a provincial security official denied that Taliban fighters had entered the city and said the situation was calm. “Some sporadic gunfire can be heard, which isn’t a big deal,” he said by telephone. “I’m at my office now, and I haven’t heard any in 10 minutes.”

Despite this official reassurance, many terrified residents in the city were holed up in their homes early Friday, fearing the worst.

“We couldn’t sleep all night. We were waiting for the Taliban to knock on our door,” said one man, who claimed the militants had burned several buildings and security checkpoints.

While the Taliban is present in vast areas of Afghanistan, it has been unable since 2015 to seize the capital of any of the country’s 34 provinces. Still, it is a formidable fighting force, and all but a few Afghan and U.S. officials say that only a negotiated political settlement will end the fighting, now in its 17th year.

In May, Taliban fighters attacked the provincial capital of Farah province, on Afghanistan’s western border with Iran. Several hundred locally based troops and police regained control of the city after more than two days of heavy fighting.

While American air support and the deployment of 500 elite government forces from nearby provinces were needed to force the Taliban from Farah, neither arrived in the city for at least 15 hours to help the “several hundred” Afghan security forces that the U.S. military says were in the city immediately before the assault began.

While the battles in Farah and Kunduz, the northern city sized by the Taliban in 2015, were dramatic demonstrations of Taliban resilience and of the continued weaknesses of the expanding, U.S.-trained Afghan government forces, both cities are relatively remote and neither is as strategically important to the government as Ghazni, located 80 miles southeast of the Afghan capital.

The Taliban and the government of President

Ashraf Ghani

are expected to soon announce unilateral cease-fires to coincide with the three-day commemoration this month of the Muslim festival of Eid al-Adha. Similar cease-fires in June prompted stunning scenes across Afghanistan of fighters from the rival forces embracing each other and snapping selfies.

Attempting to harness the goodwill generated by the June truces to advance a nascent peace process, U.S. officials last month met directly with Taliban officials in the Qatari capital Doha.

Write to Craig Nelson at craig.nelson@wsj.com