KABUL, Afghanistan (CNN) - The Taliban launched a brazen attack on the strategic Afghan city of Ghazni, south of the capital Kabul, early on Friday, seizing key buildings and trading fire with security forces.
Afghan soldiers fought back as the heavily armed militants converged from four sides of the province. At least 16 people were killed and 40 injured, the majority of them Afghan security forces, Ghazni public health director Zahir Shah Nikmall told CNN.
United States forces responded to the assault with attack helicopters and a drone strike, according to US Forces Afghanistan spokesman Lt. Col. Martin O'Donnell.
Heavy fighting was continuing as of Friday afternoon in the city, where Afghan and NATO forces were engaging fighters "by air and ground," Ghazni government spokesman Mohammad Arif Noori told CNN.
Mohammad Radmanish, spokesman for the Ministry of Defense, said that the Taliban had been pushed back to the outskirts of the city.
He estimated that more than 150 Taliban fighters have been killed or wounded.
Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said in a statement that hundreds of fighters armed with heavy and light weapons entered Ghazni at around 1 a.m., capturing a number of strategic sites within the city and killing more than 140 Afghan soldiers. The US disputed that figure, saying initial reports indicated there were "minimal Afghan security force casualties."
In a tweet, US Forces Afghanistan called the attack a "failed attempt" to seize territory "while creating strategically inconsequential headlines."
An ambitious assault on a key city
Ghazni, the capital of the province of the same name, is less than 100 miles south of Kabul. It lies on the Kabul-Kandahar highway, an important artery connecting the capital to the country's southern provinces and some of its western ones.
The assault on a major population center was one of the group's most ambitious military moves in years, and was further evidence that a violent stalemate between the government and the Taliban persists. In May, the inisurgent group briefly overran the western city of Farah, but Ghazni is far more important and the scale of the attack much greater.
If the city fell to the Taliban, it would compromise the security of the capital and the eight provinces it borders.
However, while the Taliban is capable of controlling rural areas, the combination of Afghan troops with US air support has prevented its fighters from taking and holding population centers.
Friday's assault could imperil any chances of a potential ceasefire between the government and the extremist group for the Eid al-Adha festival in less than two weeks.
The assault is the latest insurgent attack in the country since the Afghan government unilaterally called off a ceasefire that it had in place for Eid al-Fitr, the holiday marking the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. The Taliban, along with other militant groups such as ISIS, routinely attack military and civilian targets in the country.
At least seven people were killed and more than 15 were wounded in Kabul in a suicide attack at a ministry in early June, and a further 14 people were killed and 60 injured in a suicide bomb attack near Hamid Karzai International Airport outside the capital in late July. ISIS claimed responsibility for that attack.
The continuing violence comes amid the release of a UN report stating the number of Afghan civilians killed in the first six months of this year has reached a record high.
Almost 1,700 civilians were killed from January 1 to June 30, a total higher than any comparable time over the past 10 years, according to the UN.
Late last month, American diplomats met face-to-face with Taliban representatives in Qatar to discuss laying the groundwork for peace talks, according to The Wall Street Journal.
US diplomats met with Taliban representatives in Qatar without Afghan government officials present, the New York Times said, citing two senior Taliban officials.
The State Department did not confirm or deny the talks, which would be a reversal of a longstanding policy and strategy toward the Taliban in Afghanistan.
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