A Taliban assault on the capital of Afghanistan’s Helmand province has seen heavy fighting and been condemned by America as going against its withdrawal deal with the militants.
Afghan forces abandoned checkpoints and residents fled into central Lashkar Gah as insurgent fighters surrounded the town which housed UK headquarters during Britain’s Helmand campaign.
A local hospital reported scores of casualties, while the main highway to neighbouring Kandahar was blocked and power supplies failed as sub stations were attacked.
Fighting began at the weekend in the Babaji and Nad-e Ali areas, which were patrolled by British soldiers until they left in 2014. As clashes approached the edge of the city, US air strikes attempted to force the attackers back.
The offensive came despite repeated Afghan and international calls for a ceasefire and as negotiators for the Taliban and Afghan government are still unable to set ground rules for talks on a potential political settlement.
“The Taliban need to immediately stop their offensive actions in Helmand Province and reduce their violence around the country. It is not consistent with the US-Taliban agreement and undermines the ongoing Afghan Peace Talks.”Gen Scott Miller, Commander
— USFOR-A Spokesman Col Sonny Leggett (@USFOR_A) October 12, 2020
The commander of US and Nato forces said the attack also went against February’s Doha agreement for American troops to withdraw in return for Taliban assurances they would not give a safe haven to al-Qaeda. That deal included private assurances that the Taliban would reduce violence and not attack cities, US officials have said.
Gen Scott Miller said: “The Taliban need to immediately stop their offensive actions in Helmand province and reduce their violence around the country. It is not consistent with the US-Taliban agreement and undermines the ongoing Afghan peace talks.”
Hundreds of families have fled fighting in the outskirts and on Monday arrived in the city centre in streams of vehicles loaded with possessions.
Abdul Rahim, who had loaded his possessions into the back of his car, said he had fled his home in Bolan. “The Taliban came and threatened locals to leave their homes,” he said.
Mohammad Rahim, said he had left his own Nad-e Ali home when the Taliban began taking over residents’ compounds and using them to fire on government troops.
Andrew Watkins, Afghanistan analyst for International Crisis Group, said the Taliban may have calculated the assault would put further pressure on the Afghan government to make concessions. He said the militants appeared to believe that displays of violence would prompt their opponents to drop, rather than double their resistance.
“Or, very honestly, it could simply reveal a general lack of concern among the Taliban’s military command, that their military campaign might threaten the position they find themselves in. Trump and US government officials have certainly not sent strong signals that the Taliban are inching toward a red line they might not be able to back away from,” he said.
The attack appeared to be the result of months of planning, said Khalil ul Rahman Jawad, Helmand’s police chief. “Now we are trying again to organize our forces and retake the lost areas with a useful plan, which is already underway,” he said. He said he was confident the town would not fall and claimed as many as 170 Taliban had been killed or wounded. However one Afghan military source said in many places the defending forces had fled their checkpoints without a fight.
The town’s accident and emergency hospital, run by the Emergency international aid group, said 48 wounded had arrived to be treated on Sunday and another 12 on Monday. “Whilst in Doha there is talk of peace, the violence here in Afghanistan doesn’t stop. Civilians are already paying the price for this new wave of fighting in Helmand, ” said Marco Puntin, the group’s Afghanistan coordinator.
“Fighting is on-going,” said Mariana Cortesi, a hospital coordinator for Doctors Without Borders. “Last night, a stray bullet hit a pregnant woman and killed the baby. Miraculously the mother survived and is now receiving maternal and surgical care after a life-saving operation.”
A similar Taliban offensive in late 2015 saw the insurgents reach the outskirts of Lashkar Gah before they were slowly fought back.
Some 450 British troops died, almost all in Helmand, before the UK ended its combat mission in 2014. Hundreds remain in Kabul conducting training and security duties.
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