Taliban closing in on key city in the south

But Afghan and US officials confirm that there has also been an increase in Helmand, where the Afghan forces have struggled to hold the line as the Taliban have drawn closer to Lashkar Gah.

Local officials warned on Tuesday that the provincial capital was struggling to cope with an influx of people fleeing the fighting across Helmand. "We have sent reinforcements to Helmand", defence ministry spokesman Dawlat Waziri told AFP. Its hard for the city to contain all of them.

The Taliban advance towards Helmand's capital Lashkar Gah has compounded fears that the city was on the brink of falling into Taliban hands, even as U.S. and Afghan officials insist that they will not allow another urban centre to be captured.

The turmoil underscored an unravelling security situation in Afghanistan.

A statement by the provincial government said Afghan troops are engaged in clashes with the Taliban in the Nad-e-Ali, Garmsir and Nawa districts. Fighting has closed all the highways leading into the city, forcing up prices for food and other basics.

"Every day dozens of families come from districts to Lashkar Gah", Abdel Jabar, a shopkeeper, said.

According to the official who declined to be named, Taliban militants have overrun four police checkpoints and the attacking insurgents are attempting to capture the district headquarters. South of Lashkar Gah, the Taliban are making gains.

The Taliban briefly captured northern Kunduz city in September last year, the first city to fall to the rebels in their biggest victory in 14 years of war.

British forces were stationed in Helmand province since 2006, but left two years ago when North Atlantic Treaty Organisation ended its combat mission in Afghanistan.

"We have fresh reinforcements fighting the Taliban in these districts", Amar Zwak, the governor spokesman for Helmand said.

Helmand, Afghanistan's largest province, is slowly crumbling as the Taliban intensify their summer offensive against the Afghan government.

The United States has stepped up air strikes supporting Afghan forces, highlighting the intensity of the battle in Helmand.

"The complexity and scale of the attacks last week was much more significant, particularly in Helmand where two district centres were targeted and contested", OCHA said. The fighting in Helmand has now gone on for several weeks, but the tide of the battle seems to be favoring the Taliban. "We remain confident that the Afghan forces are fighting effectively and that they will continue to secure Lashkar Gah".

At the time, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and the commander of USA and North Atlantic Treaty Organisation forces in the country, Gen. John Nicholson, vowed no other city would fall to the insurgents.

  • Joey Payne