Afghan forces appeared to have finally pushed Taliban fighters from the strategic city of Ghazni on Wednesday, as shopkeepers and residents warily returned to the streets after days of intense ground fighting and US airstrikes.
Security forces were on patrol and no militants were in sight in the centre of the shattered city, with fighting seeming to have ceased.
But despite the successful clearing operation, the Taliban appeared to have scored a military and psychological victory against Kabul, proving they have the strength to strike a strategically vital city near the capital at will and remain entrenched there for days.
As shopkeepers swept away ashes and began repairing their burned stores, warnings that the insurgents still lurked nearby stoked fears that the battle could flare again.
An AFP reporter saw Taliban forces in at least one village on the outskirts of the city, and residents said they had been told by security forces that the militants remained uncomfortably close.
"The city smelled of blood," shopkeeper Basir Ahmad told AFP after fleeing to Kabul. "People were fearful that the fighting could start again anytime."
Afghan troops backed by US air support have struggled to push the insurgents from Ghazni, which lies just two hours south of Kabul by road, since the assault began late Thursday.
Authorities have maintained that the city remained in government hands, saying that swathes had been cleared as of Wednesday.
"Afghan National Army Forces assures people of Ghazni that (the) enemy will not get any chance of disturbing people's normal life," read a statement by the defence ministry, adding that dozens of insurgents had been killed by air strikes and ongoing ground operations.
President Ashraf Ghani called the attack on the city "an unforgivable crime", saying he had instructed authorities to rush food and water supplies to the city.
"Rest assured that the pain of Ghazni is the pain of all the people of Afghanistan, it is especially my pain," said Ghani, after staying largely silent about the attack during the battle.
-'Fighting was intense' -
Ghazni lies along the major Kabul-Kandahar highway, effectively serving as a gateway between Kabul and militant strongholds in the south.
The assault on the city has been the largest tactical onslaught since an unprecedented truce in June brought fighting between the Taliban and security forces to a temporary halt, providing war-weary Afghans some relief.
As clearing operations continued, analysts said the Taliban demonstrated considerable strength ahead of possible peace talks, while highlighting the difficulty Afghan forces have in confronting the insurgents, especially in urban areas -- even with the backing of US air power.
"The government might have been able to take back the city, but the people's trust in them has been weakened," said retired general and security analyst Atiqullah Amarkhail.
"Today, even in Kabul, people may be starting to fear a sudden attack by the Taliban against the city."
The United Nations warned of "extreme human suffering" caused by the latest fighting.
"Reports indicate that the casualty toll in Ghazni is immense," the UN's special representative in Afghanistan Tadamichi Yamamoto said Wednesday.
"Unconfirmed estimates range from 110 to 150 civilian casualties. Reliable information indicates that the Ghazni Public Hospital is overwhelmed by a continuous influx of injured government forces, Taliban fighters and civilians."
He said civilians faced a grim situation, with no power and water and food shortages, while blocked roads were stopping some families from fleeing.
Ghazni residents confirmed that food supplies had run low, and that prices continued to rise.
"My house was just near the front line, the Taliban would force people to bring them food and tea," said Hassan Safari.
"For two days we had no water and no food."
Another resident, Shukrullah Nahimi, said his family hid in the basement during the fighting.
"We didn't sleep for two nights as children were crying all the time because of the sound of firing," he said.
"Many of the families in our neighbourhood had left."