By Nic Robertson, Nilly Kohzad, Tim Lister and Helen Regan, CNN
The Taliban have claimed victory in Afghanistan’s Panjshir province, with a spokesman saying the region had been “completely conquered” following two weeks of fierce fighting with a resistance group.
Panjshir was the last remaining hold-out among Afghanistan’s 34 provinces to resist the Taliban. If the claim is true, it would mean the Taliban now control every Afghan province.
However, the National Resistance Front in Afghanistan (NRF), an anti-Taliban group which has been battling the militants’ offensive in the Panjshir Valley, denied the claim, with spokesman Ali Nazary telling CNN: “The resistance is still all over the valley.”
In reference to the Taliban offensive, NRF leader Ahmad Massoud said Monday that “in no way military pressure on us and our territory will lessen our resolve to continue our fight.”
Call for a national uprising
In a long message on his Facebook page, Massoud also appealed to Afghans, whether in or outside the country, to join “a general uprising for the sake of honor, freedom and pride of our country.” Massoud also called for international support for his cause.
Photos and videos shared widely on social media showed the white flag of the Taliban hoisted between buildings in what appeared to be the Panjshir governor’s office in the provincial capital of Bazarak. CNN cannot independently verify the image.
“The last nest of the enemy, Panjshir province, was completely conquered,” Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said in a tweet. “We assure the honorable people of Panjshir that they will not face any discriminatory treatment. They are all our brothers, and we will work for one country and one common goal. With the recent efforts and this victory, our country is completely out of the vortex of war.”
Mujahid later told a news conference that the province “which was the last place of our enemy has been cleared completely last night,” adding that there were no civilian casualties in the last few days and “all weapons have been captured.”
Although it did not deny the center of Panjshir had fallen to the militants, the NRF said earlier in the day that other areas in Panjshir remained under its control.
“Most of Bazarak district and all the side valleys are controlled by the NRF,” Nazary said.
“Taliban’s claim of occupying Panjshir is false. The NRF forces are present in all strategic positions across the valley to continue the fight. We assure the people of Afghanistan that the struggle against the Taliban and their partners will continue until justice and freedom prevails,” the NRF said.
The claim comes after a weekend of intense fighting in the Panjshir Valley, with heavy casualties reported.
NRF leader Massoud said in a Facebook post on Sunday he is in support of clerics in the capital Kabul who have called for an end to the fighting and was ready to talk once the Taliban withdrew troops from Panjshir and the neighboring district of Andarab.
There’s been no official Taliban response to Massoud’s proposals.
In his Facebook post on Monday, Massoud said he had lost family members in the fighting in Panjshir,
Massoud added that the NRF accepted the appeal of religious leaders to end the fighting, but the “Taliban showed their identity and showed that they have no belief in Sharia.”
“The Taliban started attacking us which resulted in the killing of a large number of our countrymen including my family members,” he said.
Massoud said that what was happening in Afghanistan would make the country “backward, dark, far from any kind of culture and art and unity as well as an Afghanistan that is in total isolation from the rest of the world.”
Earlier, Taliban spokesman Belal Kareemi told CNN the group’s militant fighters had taken all districts of Panjshir province except for the capital of Bazarak and Rokha districts, which remain under NRF control. But resistance fighters appeared to rebut the Taliban’s claims.
Panjshir is a strategic slice of mountainous terrain rich with precious mineral resources around 90 miles (144 kilometers) north of Kabul, and has a long history of resisting the insurgent group. In the late 1990s, it was a center of resistance against the Taliban during their rule.
For two weeks the NRF, a multi-ethnic group that includes former Afghan security force members and reportedly numbers in the thousands, has continued the fight against the Taliban following the militants’ almost-complete takeover of Afghanistan.
The NRF said its spokesmen Fahim Dashty and General Abdul Wudod Zara had been killed.
On Sunday, Taliban spokesman Kareemi claimed the enemy had suffered “heavy casualties,” including among their commanders, and that the Taliban hope to be able to “clear Panjsher as soon as possible.” Taliban fighters are currently advancing toward Rokha and Bazarak, Kareemi added.
Before his death, NRF spokesman Dashti appeared to rebut the Taliban’s claims, tweeting that the Paryan district of Panjshir was “completely cleared” of the Taliban.
“At least 1,000 terrorists were trapped due to the cutting of their way out. All the attackers were either killed, surrendered or captured by locals with help from resistance fighters as they fled and retreated. Many of these prisoners are foreigners and most of them are Pakistanis,” Dashti said.
CNN has not been able to independently verify the overall casualty figures in the latest rounds of fighting.
Taliban pledge humanitarian staff safety and security
The United Nations said in a statement on Sunday that Taliban authorities “pledged that the safety and security of humanitarian staff, and humanitarian access to people in need, will be guaranteed and that humanitarian workers — both men and women — will be guaranteed freedom of movement.”
It comes after UN under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs Martin Griffiths met with Taliban co-founder and deputy leader Mullah Baradar and other senior Taliban figures in Kabul to reiterate the UN’s commitment to humanitarian aid there.
“In this meeting, Mr. Griffiths reiterated the humanitarian community’s commitment to deliver impartial and independent humanitarian assistance and protection to millions of people in need,” Stéphane Dujarric, spokesman for UN Secretary-General António Guterres, said in a statement.
The UN said Afghanistan “faces a looming humanitarian catastrophe” fueled by conflict, drought and hunger. Half the country’s population — 18 million people — need humanitarian assistance to survive and the situation will become more acute as a severe drought, the second in four years, will further contribute to hunger in the months ahead, according to Dujarric.
On Sunday, aid planes from Qatar and Bahrain arrived in Kabul, transporting more than 50 tons of medical aid and food products to the country.
This is the second shipment of aid to arrive at Kabul airport from Qatar since the US troop withdrawal from the country in late August. The first shipment arrived Saturday, with a plane transporting some 17 tons of aid, according to a Ministry of Foreign Affairs statement.
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CNN’s Jonny Hallam, Niamh Kennedy, Celine Alkhaldi, Radina Gigova and Lauren Said-Moorhouse contributed.