“Coalition special forces advisers, to include U.S. servicemembers, while advising and assisting elements of the Afghan security forces, encountered an insurgent threat in the vicinity of the Kunduz airport,” U.S. military spokesman Col. Brian Tribus said in a statement.
Tribus acknowledged the special operations troops are in Afghanistan to “advise and assist,” but that “servicemembers have the right to protect themselves if necessary.”
He did not specify what other nationalities may have been involved in the firefight but the French news agency “Agence France-Presse”, citing a Western official, said special operations advisers in Kunduz come from several countries, including Britain, Germany and the United States.
The Reuters news agency quoted a senior Afghan security official as saying about 100 U.S. special operations troops fought off Taliban attackers threatening to breach the airport early Wednesday.
The American troops, wearing night-vision goggles, left the airport and killed the assailants before returning, the official said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief media about the fighting.
Fighting around Kunduz, a city of about 300,000, has centered around the airport, where Afghan forces are trying to launch a counteroffensive to recapture the city. Reports from the scene said the counteroffensive faltered Tuesday because of stiff Taliban resistance including improvised explosive devices along the road into the town about 6.5 miles to the north of the airport.
The U.S. has carried out at least three airstrikes in the airport area, coalition officials have reported.
U.S. aircraft also launched a failed attempt to airdrop supplies to a force of besieged Afghans who were later forced to surrender, an Afghan official told The New York Times. Coalition officials did not immediately respond to requests for information on airdrops.
The coalition said one of its servicemembers died of a “nonbattle cause” on Tuesday in northern Afghanistan, but that the incident was not connected to the situation in Kunduz.
Kunduz is the first major urban center the insurgents have occupied since the American invasion that ousted them from power in 2001 following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. During the past year, the guerrillas succeeded in seizing several small district centers but only held them briefly before being chased out by government reinforcements.
Convoys of reinforcements spent all day trying to force their way through Taliban roadblocks, ambushes, and roadside bombs to try to reach the beleaguered security forces, who are relying mostly on the airport for resupply.
The Defense Ministry claimed that one of the airstrikes on Tuesday night, guided by Afghan intelligence, had killed the Taliban shadow governor of Kunduz, Maulavi Abdul Salaam, along with his deputy and 15 fighters. Salaam was one of the top commanders of the forces that seized Kunduz in Monday’s stunning offensive, according to the ministry.
The claim was rejected by Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid, who insisted Salaam is still alive.
Afghan leaders say their plans to retake the city are complicated by trying to protect civilians, many of whom have been prevented from leaving by the militants.
On Wednesday, the United Nations warned that the crisis is leading to civilian deaths and abuses.
“The reports of extrajudicial executions, including of health care workers; abductions; denial of medical care; and restrictions on movement out of the city are particularly disturbing,” Nicholas Haysom, head of the U.N. mission in Afghanistan, said in a statement.
More than 100 civilians are reported to have died and at least 6,000 residents have fled the fighting, adding to an already strained refugee situation in the area, the U.N. reported.
Beyond the outskirts where security forces claimed to have made some progress, the streets in the center of Kunduz were largely empty except for roving Taliban gunmen, according to residents.
“It is very quiet outside today, you can hear shooting in the distance, but the streets inside the city are quiet, shops are closed, and people barely walk,” said Najib, who, like many Afghans, goes by only one name.
“No one wants to go outside now, because we are scared of the bombardment,” he said, referring to expected fighting as government forces try to dislodge the insurgents from neighborhoods.
Witnesses also described food shortages as shops and bakeries remained closed, house-to-house searches by gunmen and rumors of executions. Meanwhile, Taliban vehicles flying the group’s white banner continued to patrol the streets.
The loss of Kunduz has struck a major blow to the coalition-trained Afghan forces, who until now had been lauded by coalition officials for their ability to hold their own against the insurgents during this year’s fighting season, the first since the coalition ended its combat mission.
In Washington on Tuesday, Defense Department spokesman Peter Cook acknowledged the loss of Kunduz was a “setback” but said security forces are up to the challenge.
In Kabul, meanwhile, top Afghan security ministers faced angry questioning by members of parliament, who summoned the heads of intelligence, and the defense, and interior ministries as well as the national security adviser, to answer for the collapse of security forces in Kunduz.
The first to arrive, intelligence chief Rahmatullah Nabil, publicly apologized for the loss of Kunduz before being ushered into a closed-door session to brief lawmakers on plans to win the city back.
Some lawmakers called for President Ashraf Ghani, who marked one year in office on Tuesday, to resign, Reuters reported.