KUNDUZ - Taliban insurgents advancing on the capital of a northern Afghan province have captured a key adjoining district, officials said Sunday, sparking renewed alarm among residents who fear the fall of the besieged city.

The Taliban launched their annual summer offensive in late April with a brazen assault in Kunduz province, coming close to overrunning the provincial capital and sending civilian casualties soaring in outlying districts.

The capture of the worst-affected Chardarah district - at the edge of Kunduz city - reignited concerns over its potential fall as insurgents escalate their annual summer offensive.

“The district has fallen to Taliban after hours of fierce fighting. Twelve Afghan forces have lost their lives and 17 have been wounded,” Chardarah district chief Mohammad Yousuf Ayubi told AFP.

The militants are now as close as three kilometres to Kunduz city, increasingly hemmed in by the insurgency, with sporadic fighting still ongoing between the Taliban and pro-government forces.

The fall of a provincial capital would be a major setback for the Afghan government, which has been fighting a resilient Taliban insurgency since the 2001 US-led invasion of Afghanistan.

Deputy Afghan army chief General Murad Ali Murad said at least 70 security forces were surrounded by Taliban insurgents in Chardarah.

“We are going to start a military operation to retake the district on Sunday evening,” he told AFP. Abdul Sabor Nasrati, the police chief of the province on the border with Tajikistan, said the government was rushing reinforcements to Chardarah. Civilians are bearing the brunt of a large-scale insurgent offensive in Kunduz, the keystone of the Taliban’s summer fighting season which is expected to be the bloodiest in a decade.

The province is facing a humanitarian crisis, with thousands of families trapped in a vortex of violence as militancy spreads across the north, beyond traditional Taliban hotbeds in the south and east.

Fierce battles between insurgents and government forces in Chardarah late Saturday sent terrified residents fleeing towards Kunduz city, carrying babies, livestock and household possessions.

“The Taliban attacked our village and both sides sprayed bullets in all directions,” said 60-year-old Bibi Gul, clutching an infant. “The Taliban are fighting during the fasting month of Ramazan. They are not Muslims,” she told AFP. The militants recently rebuffed requests from senior Afghan clerics to halt attacks during Ramazan despite surging civilian casualties.

Meanwhile, the Taliban have announced a 24-hour telephone “hotline” and email addresses for any government employees wishing to defect to them, as the tech-savvy militants try to bolster public support. “The Islamic Emirate will provide safety to anybody who defects from the Kabul puppet regime,” the Taliban said in a statement on their website on Sunday, using their formal name.

“They can get in touch with us 24/7 through these phone numbers and email addresses,” it added, listing two for each. The move demonstrates the Taliban’s efforts to boost public support for their resilient but unpopular insurgency following a string of defections to the Islamic State group in recent months.It marks a rare attempt by the Taliban to reach out to government officials, frequently targeted in growing insurgent attacks that have sent casualties soaring.

When AFP called one of the numbers, a militant representative who identified himself as Mullah Jalid said they had received more than 20 calls from government employees since the statement was posted.

“They all said labayk (Arabic for ‘we are at your service’) to our invitation,” Jalid said, a claim that was impossible to verify independently.

“This invitation is for all the employees of the government, military and civilian. They are welcome to come to us and we will protect them from the invaders and the stooge government.”

The statement, posted by the insurgent group’s “invitation and guidance commission”, also mentioned a radio communication code to help establish contact with the insurgents.

Once seen as uneducated thugs, the Taliban have developed a media-savvy PR team who use digital technology to reach out to audiences worldwide. When the Taliban ruled Afghanistan between 1996 and 2001, almost all electronic products were outlawed as un-Islamic. Photographs of living things were illegal and ownership of a video player could lead to a public lashing. But the Taliban have avidly embraced electronic communication and social media in recent years as a recruitment tool and to promote their propaganda.

Bomb kills nine children, 10 adults

Reuters adds: A roadside bomb killed at least 19 Afghan civilians including nine children in a southern province, officials said on Sunday.

Violence has spiralled in Afghanistan since the departure of most foreign forces at the end of last year. In the southern province of Helmand, police official Haji Janan Aqa said 19 people, including nine children and eight women, were killed on Saturday night. He said five people were wounded.

He said the villagers had recently fled fighting in in Marjah district and were apparently trying to go home.

"They wanted to return to their village, but their van hit a roadside bomb planted by Taliban," Aqa said.

A Reuters witness said all of the dead children he saw at the scene were under the age of five.

No one has claimed responsibility for the bombing. The Taliban typically deny targeting civilians, although their tactic of planting roadside bombs has been harshly criticised by the United Nations.