Taliban fighters have seized a sixth Afghan provincial capital in less than a week, overrunning the northern city of Aibak, its deputy governor and an insurgent spokesman said.
The insurgent forces "are in full control", Sefatullah Samangani from Samangan province told AFP, shortly after a Taliban spokesman tweeted that all government and police installations had been "cleared".
They set their sights on the biggest city in northern Afghanistan after seizing five provincial capitals in a weekend blitz that appeared to overwhelm government forces.
A Taliban spokesman said its fighters were moving in on Mazar-i-Sharif, a linchpin of the government's control of the region, after capturing Sheberghan to its west, and Kunduz and Taloqan in the east.
The spokesman said they had entered the city, but officials and residents contacted by phone said the Taliban were exaggerating, with fighting confined to surrounding districts.
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"The enemy is trying to distort public opinion and create anxiety for the civilian population by their propaganda," said a statement from the provincial police force in Balkh, where Mazar-i-Sharif is the capital.
Mazar's longtime strongman Atta Mohammad Noor vowed to fight for the city, saying there would be "resistance until the last drop of my blood".
"I prefer dying in dignity than dying in despair," he tweeted.
The loss of the city, steeped in history and long an economic hub, would signal the collapse of Kabul's control of the north and likely raise major questions about the future of the government.
In neighbouring Kunduz, the second-largest city in the north that fell to the Taliban yesterday, residents said insurgents were all over the city, occupying government offices and institutions.
"The security situation is not good and we fled to save our lives," Rahmatullah, a 28-year-old resident, said.
"It is like a horror movie," he added.
Another resident Abdul Qudoos said fears were growing that Kunduz would face food and water shortages.
Fighting in the south
As the Taliban pressed ahead in the north, fighting also raged in the south, where Afghan forces have been locked in heavy street-to-street fighting with the Taliban.
The insurgents have for weeks been trying to take Kandahar and Lashkar Gah, both with Pashtun majorities from where the Taliban draw their strength.
"We're clearing houses, roads, and buildings that the Taliban occupy," General Sami Sadat, commander of the Afghan army's 215 Corps, told AFP from Lashkar Gah.
The ministry of defence said hundreds of Taliban fighters had been killed or injured in the last 24 hours.
Both sides routinely exaggerate death tolls that are virtually impossible to verify.
The claims come a day after Kunduz, Sar-e-Pul and Taloqan in the north fell within hours of each other, raising fears that the government grip over the north was slipping rapidly.
Northern Afghanistan has long been considered an anti-Taliban stronghold that saw some of the stiffest resistance to militant rule in the 1990s.
The region remains home to several militias and is also a fertile recruiting ground for the country's armed forces.
Fighting in Afghanistan's long-running conflict has escalated dramatically since May, when the US-led military coalition began the final stage of a withdrawal set to be completed before the end of the month.
The withdrawal of foreign forces is due to finish at the end of this month ahead of the 20th anniversary of the September 11 attacks.
The US-led invasion sparked by 9/11 toppled the first Taliban regime in 2001.
Taliban target media workers, journalists in Afghanistan
Suspected Taliban fighters have killed an Afghan radio station manager in Kabul and kidnapped a journalist in southern Helmand province, local government officials said, reporting the latest in a long line of attacks targeting media workers.
Gunmen shot the station manager of Paktia Ghagradio and an officer for NAI, a rights group supporting independent media in Afghanistan, in a targeted killing in the capital yesterday.
Officials in Kabul suspected Taliban fighters had carried out the attack.
Last month, the NAI reported at least 30 journalists and media workers have been killed, wounded or abducted by militant groups in Afghanistan this year.
In southern Helmand province, officials said Taliban fighters had seized a local journalist, Nematullah Hemat, from his home in Lashkar Gah, the provincial capital.
A coalition of Afghan news organisations have written to US President Joe Biden and leaders in the House of Representatives, urging them to grant special immigration visas to Afghan journalists and support staff.
The Taliban has in recent days ramped up an offensive against Afghan government forces that followed Washington's announcement that it would end its military mission in the country by the end of the month.
Washington's former envoy to Kabul, Ryan Crocker, said a prolonged civil war is a more likely outcome than a swift Taliban takeover of the entire country.
"They're doing what they're doing in part to create a climate of fear and panic," he, told ABC's This Week.
Vivid footage of the fighting was posted on social media over the weekend, including what appeared to be large numbers of prisoners being freed from jails in captured cities.
The Taliban frequently target prisons to release incarcerated fighters to replenish their ranks.
The pace of Taliban advances has caught government forces flatfooted, but they won some respite late on Saturday when US warplanes bombed Taliban positions in Sheberghan.