NEW: Afghan ministry: Afghan forces retook district that had been a Taliban stronghold
Afghan officials admitted the provincial capital had "largely fallen into the hand of enemies"
But Taliban insurgents were pushed out by coalition-backed Afghan forces
Weeks after they overran a strategically important city in northern Afghanistan, the Taliban said Wednesday their forces have now withdrawn from Kunduz after achieving their objectives.
The Afghan Defense Ministry issued its own statement about a change on the ground – characterizing it not as some sort of strategic withdrawal but a Taliban defeat that resulted in the deaths of a “large number of enemy fighters.”
The ministry said its special forces retook Kunduz province’s Char Dara district, which has been a Taliban stronghold for years, on Tuesday night and subsequently began the process of clearing it. The district is southwest of the provincial capital.
Last month, Afghan officials admitted the provincial capital had “largely fallen into the hand of enemies” when Taliban insurgents seized the center of the city, including a hospital and a prison, where they reportedly freed more than 500 inmates. It was the first time they’d taken over a city of this size since 2001.
After days of bitter fighting, Afghan special forces supported by U.S. military advisers – who coordinated airstrikes on the ground – managed to retake most of the city, but not without civilian casualties.
In one incident the U.S. military has since described as accidental, a U.S. airstrike hit a hospital in the city run by Doctors Without Borders, killing 22 people and injuring dozens more. The facility had been treating hundreds of people wounded by shrapnel and gunfire during the intense fighting. Thousands of people fled the city, according to the United Nations.
Taliban claim achievements
In an emailed statement received by CNN on Wednesday, the militant group described how its forces had launched “a well-organized operation on Kunduz city and within a few hours managed to break through enemy defense lines and took over the entire city barring the airbase.”
The statement went on to say the Taliban had achieved a number of objectives, including the release of hundreds of “Mujahideen and other innocent individuals accused of supporting Jihad” from the city’s prison.
The group also claimed to have caused “a wave of panic in the enemy ranks” by taking a city considered militarily strategic and a command center for the entire northeast provinces of Afghanistan.
Fighters “seized military equipment, APCs, launchers, tons of heavy and light arms ammunition as well as archived documents from the ministry of national directorate services and other organs” and proved they could achieve their objectives in “every part of the country” despite the continued presence of foreign forces, the statement said.
The militant group claimed these successes had come with very small and negligible losses, while civilian casualties “were also kept at a bare minimum.”
‘Fruitless cost’ leads to withdrawal
However, they added that the “fruitless cost of corporeal and material losses to Mujahideen in the protracted battle in defense of Kunduz city” had prompted a withdrawal to outlying rural areas around the city “to reinforce their defense lines and reserve their strength for effective future operations.”
The U.S.-led coalition ended its combat mission in Afghanistan last year, handing over the lead to Afghan forces while remaining in a training and assistance role.
“Obviously, this is a setback for the Afghan security forces,” Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook said last month of the loss of Kunduz. “But we’ve seen them respond in recent weeks and months to the challenges they face, and they’re doing the same thing in Kunduz right now.”
In addition to a series of U.S. airstrikes in the area, the NATO-led international mission in Afghanistan said there were “limited coalition forces around Kunduz advising and assisting” Afghan security forces.
CNN’s Masoud Popalzai and Greg Botelho contributed to this report.