Intense fighting has continued in Afghanistan’s key southern provincial capital of Lashkar Gah between the Taliban and government forces as the hardline Islamist group pushes on with its efforts to seize the city.
Amid fears the city was in imminent danger of falling, clashes continued throughout the night as US and Afghan airstrikes pounded Taliban positions, with both sides digging into positions in public buildings and residents being warned to stay indoors.
The heaviest fighting was reported around the main government compound, the prison – where an attempt to free prisoners was repulsed – and headquarters of the police and intelligence agency, with one official suggesting hundreds of soldiers had surrendered.
At least 40 civilians were reported killed and more than 100 wounded in the last 24 hours in the city.
Fida Mohammad, a tribal elder, said: “The situation is appalling. The Taliban are climbing all the high-rise buildings in the centre of the city and setting up fortifications then being bombed by the government.”
The loss of Lashkar Gah would be a big strategic and psychological blow for the government, which has pledged to defend cities at all costs after losing much of the rural countryside to the Taliban over the summer.
Mohammad Omar, a resident of Lashkar Gah, said his cousin had been killed in an airstrike while other members of his family had been forced to flee the fighting, adding that clashes were ongoing in all parts of the city.
“The pattern is that the government forces are weakly fighting against the Taliban during the day, and then when night comes the government then launches its airstrikes.”
Abdul Majeed Akhundzada, a member of Helmand’s provincial council, criticised the government’s handling of the crisis, adding that he was doubtful of the promise of reinforcements.
“The city is shut down and nobody is moving,” he said. “Hundreds of soldiers have surrendered, and weapons and facilities have fallen into the hands of the Taliban.”
The continued contest for Helmand’s main city, for years a focus of US and British military operations, came as government forces appeared to have pushed the Taliban out of several areas in the economically important western city of Herat following the recent arrival of hundreds of commando reinforcements.
While the Taliban’s countrywide offensive has targeted three provincial capitals, including Kandahar and Herat, the attempt to take Lashkar Gah has emerged for now as the key battle in the group’s ambitions to take and hold a provincial capital in the hope it will topple the surrounding provinces.
In recent days, the US military has intensified airstrikes across the country in a bid to stem Taliban advances, not least in Lashkar Gah, after a week of rapid advances.
The fighting came as the general commanding Afghan forces in Helmand, Sami Sadat, warned that a Taliban takeover would have profound consequences for global security.
In an interview with the BBC, he said: “This will increase the hope for small extremist groups to mobilise in the cities of Europe and America, and will have a devastating effect on global security,” he said. “This is not a war of Afghanistan, this is a war between liberty and totalitarianism.”
The Taliban has seized control of much of rural Afghanistan since foreign forces began the last stage of their withdrawal in early May, but are meeting resistance as they try to take provincial capitals.
Although most US and other foreign ground forces have withdrawn, the US has confirmed it has launched airstrikes to support the Afghan military. While some have been drone strikes, reports have also suggested that US B52 bombers – probably from the Al Udeid airbase in Qatar – have also flown in support.
The continuing violence in Helmand came as the United Nations warned that “indiscriminate” gunfire and airstrikes were hurting civilians the most.
“Taliban ground offensive & ANA airstrikes causing most harm,” the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) tweeted Tuesday, referring to the Afghan National Army. “Deep concerns about indiscriminate shooting & damage to/occupation of health facilities & civilian homes.”
In Lashkar Gah, officials said insurgents had seized more than a dozen local radio and TV stations in Lashkar Gah leaving only one pro-Taliban channel, which broadcasted Islamic programming.
“Fighting was intense this morning,” said Sefatullah, director of Sukon radio in the city.
“The US B52 and Afghan airforce both pounded the Taliban positions,” he said, adding that fighting was ongoing near the city’s prison and a building housing the headquarters of police and intelligence agencies.
Sefatullah said his radio station had “stopped broadcasting two days ago because the Taliban captured the building of our station.”
Afghan officials said that 10 other radio and four television stations in Helmand had been seized by the Taliban, most in the provincial capital.
“Terrorists do not want the media to publish the facts and expose their injustices,” the ministry of information and culture said.
In Herat, Afghan officials said government forces had managed to push back the insurgents from several areas of the city – including near the airport, which is vital for resupplies – as hundreds of residents chanted “Allahu Akbar” from their rooftops after government forces repulsed the latest Taliban assault.
“Afghan security forces plus resistance forces launched a big operation in west of the city,” Jailani Farhad, spokesman for Herat’s governor, told AFP. Another official said the US had carried out airstrikes in Herat last night.
Washington and London also lashed out at the Taliban, accusing them of committing atrocities that may amount to “war crimes” in the town of Spin Boldak, which the insurgents captured last month along the border with Pakistan.
Afghanistan’s Independent Human Rights Commission earlier said the insurgents had indulged in revenge killings there, leaving at least 40 people dead.
“The Taliban chased and identified past and present government officials and killed these people who had no combat role in the conflict,” the group said.
Agencies contributed to this article