Taliban militants overran three provincial capitals in northern Afghanistan in a single day, officials confirmed on Sunday.
The militants took control of the capital cities of Takhar, Kunduz, and Sar-e Pul provinces after fighting since early morning, according to local officials in the provinces.
In the latest string of victories for the group, the Taliban fighters took control of key government facilities in Taluqan city, the capital of Takhar, when the government forces evacuated the city and retreated to Farkhar district after two months of resistance, provincial councillor Rohullah Raufi said.
Just hours before the collapse of Taluqan city, the group took control of neighbouring Kunduz city, a strategically important city on the border with Tajikistan with an estimated 374,000 inhabitants, after two days of heavy fighting.
The city's airport and an army base where some German troops were stationed before they departed from the country were the only areas that remained under the government forces' control, provincial councillor Amruddin Wali said.
Earlier in the day, Taliban fighters took over Sar-e Pul city. Government officials including the Sar-e Pul governor were under siege in an army base in part of the city, because the government was unable to airlift them to safety by the end of the day, provincial councillor Asadullah Khuram said.
Two provincial capitals, Sheberghan in northern Jawzjan province and Zaranj in south-western Nimruz province, were also captured during the past two days.
Abandoned without resistance
The city of Zaranj in Nimruz, on the border with Iran, was abandoned without any resistance on Friday. Sheberghan fell on Saturday despite powerful resistance by troops loyal to anti-Taliban Uzbek leader Marshal Abdul Rashid Dostum, seen as a strong force in the area.
The latest gains mean the insurgent group controls a total of five provincial capitals which are in more populated urban areas, a serious blow to the government in Kabul.
In addition to the fall of the provincial capitals, the insurgent group enabled prisoners to escape from city jails shortly after the areas were captured.
Hundreds of prisoners, including criminals and Taliban members, succeeded in escaping from the provincial jails.
Meanwhile civilians either fled to safer areas or hid inside their homes, according to local officials. Some lacked the resources to meet their basic needs such as food, water and electricity.
Kunduz on fire
Images shared in social media on Sunday showed that the city of Kunduz on fire. It was caused by Taliban rocket attacks and government airstrikes, local residents said.
It was not immediately clear how many civilians had been killed or wounded in the crossfire.
Taliban fighters have taken more than half of Afghanistan's districts and encircled about a dozen provincial capitals since the US-led international troops began their withdrawal from the country in early May.
Currently, heavy fighting continues between the government and Taliban forces around the provincial capitals of Helmand, Kandahar, Herat, and Badakhshan provinces.
US President Joe Biden has announced that US troops would end their 20-year military intervention in the country by the end of August. NATO has already quietly wrapped up its mission in the country.
The peace talks that started between the warring sides in Qatar last year made little progress and have now stalled as both sides speak of war.
Observers fear the insurgent group will continue its violent attacks and overpower the country through military means.