Fierce battles between the Taliban militant group and government forces have forced the army to call on local residents to evacuate the capital of the Afghan province that once was the centrepiece of Britain’s military presence in the country.
Lashkar Gah, the capital of the southwestern province of Helmand, has come under a massive Taliban military assault in recent days. On Tuesday, the UN said at least 40 civilians had been killed and more than 100 wounded in the last 24 hours of fighting between Afghan government forces and the insurgents.
Majid Akhund, deputy chairman of the Helmand provincial council, confirmed that the Taliban control nine Lashkar Gah districts and also the city’s TV and radio station, which had both gone off the air, according to AP.
Deepening concern for Afghan civilians in #Lashkagah as fighting worsens. Latest reports show 118 civilians injured & 40 killed within last 24 hours as Taliban continue ground assault & Afghan Army attempts to repel. UN urges immediate end to fighting in urban areas. #Afghanistan https://t.co/7XNlBYJSzo
— UNAMA News (@UNAMAnews) August 3, 2021
Lashkar Gah is one of three provincial capitals currently under attack. American air raids on the group positions around the city didn’t stop its fighters from reaching the city centre. If Lashkar Gah fell under Taliban control, it will be the first provincial capital ruled by the extremist group since 2016.
A senior Afghan commander has urged civilians to evacuate the besieged city ahead of an army offensive against the Taliban, AFP reported.
“There has been relentless gunfire, airstrikes and mortars in densely populated areas. Houses are being bombed, and many people are suffering severe injuries,” said Sarah Leahy, from the medical charity Doctors Without Borders in Helmand, said in a statement.
Military reinforcements, desperately needed for days, only began to arrive on Saturday evening, local Afghan government commanders said earlier.
The Taliban have made strategic gains in recent months as the US announced the speedy withdrawal of allied forces after two decades of fighting the Islamist group. But the militants deliberately avoided launching serious military operations against provincial capitals and major urban centres.
But this week, the Taliban fighters took a large number of homes and businesses in Lashkar Gah and came within a short distance of the governor’s office. They also shut down many local TV and radio stations and forced refugees from surrounding villages and rural areas to gather in the very few safe areas remaining in the city.
The fall of Lashkar Gah would especially be a strategic blow for the Afghan government, which is desperate to keep provincial capitals under its control. But it will also embarrass Britain. More than 450 British troops have died during the conflict with the Taliban and fighters from al-Qaeda since 2001.
Last month, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said there could “never be a perfect moment” to withdraw the British troops, while Britain’s most senior general warned Afghanistan could be heading to a civil war.
Maj Gen Sami Sadaat, an Afghan military commander in the city, said a Taliban victory would have a “devastating effect on global security”. He told the BBC: “This is not a war of Afghanistan, this is a war between liberty and totalitarianism.”
On Monday, the US and UK accused Taliban fighters of committing atrocities against civilians that would amount to war crimes. “The Taliban massacred dozens of civilians in revenge killings. These murders could constitute war crimes,” the embassies of Washington and London said in separate tweets referring to alleged lynching in Spin Boldak, in the Kandahar province.
Additional reporting by AFP