For a second straight day, Afghan security forces fought with the Taliban in Kandahar on Sunday, focusing on a group of fighters holed up in a downtown hotel, according to Afghan officials.

The fighters had taken up positions in the Kandahar Hotel on Saturday and were firing at the intelligence agency office in southern Afghanistan’s largest city.

The two-day death toll from the first bout of major fighting since the Taliban declared the start of its spring offensive rose to 23 Taliban fighters and two Afghan policemen. The head of the provincial public health office, Abdul Qayoum Pukhla, said 47 people were hospitalized with wounds.

The Taliban touted the operation, saying it took extensive planning and involved more than 100 men, part of the group’s ongoing efforts to target government installations and NATO bases and regain ground lost last year to the surge in U.S. troops.

In two chaotic and bloody days, Taliban forces were unable to penetrate any of the compounds they attacked, such as the governor’s office, the mayor’s office and several police stations. Kandahar’s governor, Tooryalai Wesa, who was unharmed, said insurgents detonated 15 bombs during the fighting, which also included gunfire and rocket-propelled grenades.

Interior Ministry spokesman Zemarai Bashary told reporters that most of the Taliban fighters who were killed had escaped from Kandahar’s largest prison last month. Insurgents dug an underground tunnel of about 1,000 feet into the prison to free nearly 500 of their comrades, an embarrassing debacle for Afghan security forces.

In the wake of such incidents, and the killing of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, Afghan officials have been more willing to publicly accuse Pakistan of aiding the Taliban, a belief that has been widely held in Afghanistan for years.

“It’s not the Taliban, the Taliban doesn’t have that much
expertise,” said Deputy Justice Minister Mohammad Qasim Hashimzai. “Pakistan, of course, gives them expertise, gives them equipment, gives them facilities, directing them . . . they guide the Taliban and protect them.”

Hamdard is a special correspondent.