By Nasir Waqif
Afghan troops backed by US air support have launched a counter-offensive to retake Kunduz, a day after Taliban insurgents overran the strategic northern city.
It was the Taliban's biggest victory since being ousted from power in 2001.
The Taliban stormed Kunduz on Monday (local time), capturing government buildings, freeing hundreds of prisoners and raising their trademark white flag throughout the city.
The stunning fall of the provincial capital, which has sent panicked residents fleeing, dealt a major blow to Afghanistan's NATO-trained security forces and spotlighted the insurgency's potential to expand beyond its rural strongholds.
Afghan security forces, who had retreated to the outlying airport after the fall, began a counter-strike on Tuesday backed by reinforcements.
"The operation to recapture Kunduz city began at 8am today," the defence ministry said in a statement on Tuesday.
US forces also conducted an air strike in Kunduz province on Tuesday, a NATO statement said, without specifying the target.
The strike was carried out to "eliminate a threat to Afghan and coalition forces", the statement added.
Insurgents stormed the local jail, freeing hundreds of prisoners including some Taliban commanders, officials said.
Kunduz was swarming with Taliban fighters racing stolen police vehicles, who officials said overran the governor's compound and the police headquarters.
But the defence ministry on Tuesday claimed that the police headquarters and city prison had been retaken.
But several other government facilities, including a 200-bed local hospital, were still under Taliban control.
Scores of unidentified bodies littered the streets after hours of heavy fighting, said local residents, many of whom were making a hasty exit from Kunduz, some by road, as others headed to the airport.
The Taliban's incursion into Kunduz, barely nine months after the NATO combat mission concluded, coincides with the first anniversary of President Ashraf Ghani's national unity government coming to power, as it struggles to rein in the ascendant insurgency.
It will undoubtedly boost the image of new Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour within insurgent ranks as he seeks to draw attention away from internal rifts over his leadership.
Kunduz province, which borders Tajikistan and is a major transport hub for the north of the country, could offer the Taliban a critical new base of operations beyond their traditional southern strongholds.
In a statement late on Monday, Mansour congratulated his cadres over the "major victory".
"We attacked the city of Kunduz from all sides and it is in our control," a prominent Taliban commander told AFP on condition of anonymity.
"In the long run, we may not be able to retain control but this victory will dispel the Afghan government's belief that we are only strong in areas bordering Pakistan."
Kunduz was the last Taliban stronghold in northern Afghanistan in November 2001.
The Taliban stepped up attacks during a (northern) summer offensive launched in late April against the Western-backed government in Kabul.
On Sunday, 13 people were killed and 33 wounded at a volleyball match in the eastern province of Paktika.
The Taliban denied being behind the attack there, a volatile frontier region considered a stronghold of their allies the Haqqani network.
Meanwhile, Afghanistan's thinly spread security forces are also having to deal with the threat from the self-styled Islamic State group, which is looking to make inroads in the troubled country.
It launched co-ordinated weekend attacks on police checkpoints in the eastern province of Nangarhar, killing at least three officers.