Taleban fighters enter provincial capital, clash with Afghan forces
US air force has increased air strikes to support Afghan forces: Top military commander
Afghan security forces and Taleban fighters have been locked in heavy clashes for the last two days after the insurgents entered the capital of the southern province of Helmand, officials said on Friday, as civilians rushed to evacuate the city.
With US-led foreign forces nearing a complete withdrawal of troops, the Taleban have made swift territorial gains over the last two months but have not yet captured any provincial capitals.
"Since Thursday morning the Taleban have launched attacks from several directions on Lashkargah city," a government official told Reuters on the condition of anonymity. Lashkargah is the capital of Helmand, a southern province that borders Pakistan.
The official added that Afghan security forces have thus far held back the Taleban's attempt to take the city with the help of the Afghan air force, but operations were hampered by the presence of civilians in the area.
"Hundreds of families have left the area and moved to other safer places," Hafiz Ahmad, a resident of one Lashkargah neighbourhood where clashes are ongoing, told Reuters.
He said those unable to move had locked themselves in their homes, and the city wore a deserted look as gun and artillery fire reverberated through neighbourhoods.
A United Nations report this week said civilian casualties had been surging in recent weeks in Afghanistan, with as many killed in May and June as in the previous four months. The report did not cover casualties in July, when fighting has intensified further.
Abdul Majid Akhundzada, a Helmand provincial council member, said the Taleban had captured several areas of Lashkargah, and fighting was intense in an area close to the city's airport.
He expressed fear that the city could soon fall to the Taleban.
The United States' top military commander in the region has said the US air force has increased air strikes to support Afghan forces reeling from Taleban advances - but declined to say whether this would continue after their military mission ends on August 31.
Meanwhile, some 200 Afghans were set to begin new lives in the United States on Friday as an airlift got under way for translators and others who risk Taleban retaliation because they worked for the United States during its 20-year war in Afghanistan, US officials said.
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