KABUL (Reuters) - Police and residents said on Monday that Afghan forces had regained control of most of the besieged city of Kunduz, and some shops in the centre of the provincial capital opened for the first time since it fell to Taliban fighters a week ago.
The U.S. government said it was investigating whether its military was responsible for an air strike that killed 22 people in a Kunduz hospital run by aid group Medecins Sans Frontieres on Saturday, an incident that has drawn widespread condemnation.
The head of U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan, General John Campbell, said the military carried out an air strike after Afghan forces called for support, and said American soldiers were not under threat.
The comments differed from an earlier statement that the strike was because U.S. forces were threatened. The U.S. military has not acknowledged hitting the hospital.
Residents said that, unlike the previous eight days, they had not heard gun battles and were able to leave their homes to buy food and take stock of the damage done.
Government forces raised the national flag over the provincial governor’s house for the first time since losing control of much of the city when Taliban fighters launched a multi-pronged assault.
Soldiers were conducting house-to-house searches as they continued to push Islamist insurgents out of areas that had witnessed fierce fighting.
“The centre of the city is normal,” said Abdul Ghafoor, a Kunduz resident, but added it would still take time to recover.
“The city smells so bad with dead bodies still on the pavements and in the sewage. The local government must do something.”
Battles have raged around Kunduz, a strategic city of 300,000, as government forces backed by U.S. air strikes sought to drive out Taliban militants.
Their seizure of the city a week ago represented one of the biggest victories in the 14-year insurgency.
Attention has since turned to the air strike on the hospital, which the U.N. human rights chief said was “inexcusable” and could amount to a war crime.Any confirmation of U.S. responsibility for the hospital deaths would deal a blow to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s policy of forging closer ties with the United States.
His predecessor, Hamid Karzai, fell out with his backers in Washington, in part over the number of civilians killed by U.S. strikes.
U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter gave U.S. assurances of a transparent investigation on Monday and said U.S. military medical facilities in the area would treat any of the injured.
“We’ll do as much as we can to help treat the wounded,” Carter said during a trip to Spain.Sayed Mukhtar, the public health director in Kunduz, said doctors have treated 600 wounded patients and received 55 dead bodies from the fighting. The number of casualties is likely to rise as government forces clear areas around the city, he said.While the government has claimed to have regained control of the city before, and fighting has continued, weary residents were hopeful that the worst of the violence may now be over. “People are still very scared to come out,” said Abdullah, a Kunduz resident. “There is no guarantee that the security forces will keep the areas they regained from the Taliban.”
Additional reporting by Phil Stewart in Madrid. Writing by Andrew MacAskill; Editing by Mike Collett-White