Taliban threaten southern Afghan city of Lashkar Gah

Fighters close in on capital of Helmand province weeks after taking temporary control of the northern city of Kunduz

The Taliban are threatening to advance on Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province, weeks after scoring one of their most significant victories in the Afghan war by temporarily capturing the northern city of Kunduz.

For the past two days, Taliban fighters have fought government forces over parts of Nad Ali, north-west of Lashkar Gah, a key district that British troops launched one of their largest operations to win over.

Residents said on Monday that the rebels seized a number of police checkpoints in Babaji, a cluster of rural villages where British troops led Operation Panther’s Claw to establish a long-lasting Nato presence in 2009.

As the current fighting has intensified, residents have reportedly begun fleeing in large numbers.

According to an Afghan interior ministry spokesman, the Taliban have been fighting government forces in the suburbs of Lashkar Gah, prompting the dispatch of “a couple of hundred” extra troops to bolster the city’s defence.

“Lashkar Gah has a very tight security belt reinforced by our forces,” said Sediq Sediqqi. The government was planning night operations in Nad Ali and Musa Qala, another heavily besieged district, but the situation was not as bad as some residents perceived, he added.

“This is not very different from what has been happening in northern Helmand over the past couple of months. The Taliban are trying to pop in places in Helmand. They use these tactics to make sure people are frightened,” he said.

Residents, however, said they had not seen the Taliban capture territory so close to the provincial capital for a long time.

Saeed Ali Shah, a resident of Chah Anjir, a village in Babaji about 10 miles from Lashkar Gah, said government forces had managed to push back Taliban fighters from his village, but that central parts of Babaji were still in the hands of the insurgents. Local journalists, including Zainullah Stanikzai, the head of Lashkar Gah’s journalism association, confirmed Shah’s account.

Haji Malek, an elder of Chah Anjir, fled his home on Monday morning. He said it was unclear where the frontline was because the situation on the ground changed every few hours, but he estimated that about 100 Taliban fighters had entered Babaji, and had since been joined by several hundred from neighbouring districts.

“The soldiers are trying to push the Taliban out, but it is impossible because the Taliban are so strong,” he said.

Contributor

Sune Engel Rasmussen in Kabul

The GuardianTramp

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