Kandahar: The Taliban stormed into Tarin Kot Thursday, triggering heavy fighting around government buildings as panicked residents scrambled to flee the capital of southern Uruzgan province, the latest city to be targeted by insurgents.
Pitched battles prompted urgent calls from officials for reinforcements and air support after the militants toppled security posts on the outskirts to breach the city gates.
Residents said senior officials were abandoning government buildings and fleeing to the airport on the outer edges of the city, which has practically been besieged by the Taliban for months.
"If reinforcements do not arrive the city will collapse into the hands of the Taliban," Karim Khademzai, head of the provincial capital, told AFP.
The fighting comes as the Taliban are threatening to capture Lashkar Gah in neighbouring Helmand province, and northern Kunduz, which the insurgents briefly seized last year in a stinging blow to Afghan forces.
"The Taliban have entered the city and are fighting to take over police and NDS (intelligence agency) headquarters, and we fear they will storm the prison to free captured insurgents," Haji Bari Daad, a tribal elder in Tarin Kot, told AFP.
Sabir Menawal, a city resident, said Taliban fighters entered his house near the police headquarters and took up positions inside to fire at government buildings.
"The Taliban instructed us to leave the area immediately," Menawal told AFP. "I fled with my family to a safer area of Tarin Kot, but we fear fighting could spread to this area too."
Tarin Kot's normally bustling streets were empty and shops closed as local residents sought to flee the city.
President Ashraf Ghani's office, meanwhile, said the government will not allow "Uruzgan to become a sanctuary for terrorists".
"Reinforcements have reached the province, and the local police chief and provincial officials are on the frontline fighting the enemy," presidential spokesman Shahhussain Murtazawi said on Facebook.
That claim was refuted by multiple Tarin Kot residents, who said senior officials had been seen fleeing to the airport.
"Many provincial officials including the governor and other heads of government departments are at the airport," Khademzai told AFP.
General Abdul Raziq, the powerful police chief of Kandahar, said he was personally leading a contingent of military reinforcements to Uruzgan.
"We are on our way to Tarin Kot with hundreds of forces to repel the enemy attack," Raziq told AFP.
Seen previously as a rural militant movement capable only of hit-and-run attacks on cities, the Taliban have demonstrated an alarming new push into urban centres in recent months.
The deteriorating security highlights the struggle of Afghan forces, stretched on multiple fronts, to secure remote provinces such as Uruzgan, where Australian, Dutch and American troops fought for years.
As the Taliban edged closer to Tarin Kot on Wednesday, they promised on social media to show leniency towards government forces who surrender unconditionally.
Defence ministry spokesman Mohammad Radmanish, however, rejected what he called the Taliban's "propaganda campaign", saying Wednesday the Taliban would be flushed from the city's outskirts.