Afghan Taliban close in on Helmand capital

Afghan Taliban close in on Helmand capital

Kandahar (Afghanistan) (AFP) - Afghanistan rushed military reinforcements to Helmand as Taliban insurgents closed in on the besieged capital of the southern opium-rich province, with fighting intensifying in outlying districts, officials said Wednesday.

Pitched battles were reported late Wednesday in Nawa district, just a few kilometres south of Lashkar Gah city, compounding fears that the provincial capital could fall despite stepped up US air strikes to beat back the insurgents.

Fierce fighting in recent days across Helmand, seen as the focal point of the insurgency, has sent thousands of people fleeing to Lashkar Gah, sparking a humanitarian crisis as officials report crippling food and water shortages.

"We have sent reinforcements to Helmand," defence ministry spokesman Dawlat Waziri told AFP.

"Intense fighting is going on in Helmand but our troops are trying to repel the Taliban offensive."

The turmoil convulsing Helmand, blighted by a huge opium harvest that helps fund the insurgency, underscores a rapidly unravelling security situation in Afghanistan.

Around 30,000 people have been displaced in Helmand in recent weeks, local officials said, with many fleeing to Lashkar Gah forced to abandon their lentil, maize and cotton farms during the lucrative harvest season.

Panicked Lashkar Gah residents said the city was practically besieged, with roads from neighbouring districts heavily mined by the insurgents.

Doctors Without Borders (MSF) said it had downscaled its staff in Lashkar Gah, with some non-medical staff relocated from the city.

"In Helmand, #Afghanistan, we're still running Boost hospital... as fighting nears," the international medical charity said on Twitter.

"We've shared coordinates of our 300 bed hospital to approaching warring parties in Helmand."

Heavy fighting also gripped Nad Ali district, where government troops sought to dislodge insurgents who overran a neighbourhood only a few kilometres from Lashkar Gah.

The Taliban effectively control or contest 10 of the 14 districts in Helmand, the deadliest province for British and US forces in Afghanistan over the past decade.

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

NATO officially ended its combat mission in December 2014, but US forces were granted greater powers in June to strike at the insurgents as President Barack Obama vowed a more aggressive campaign.

Washington has deployed several hundred troops in Helmand in recent months.

The Taliban briefly captured northern Kunduz city in September last year, the first urban centre to fall to the insurgents in a stinging blow to Afghan forces.

As fighting escalates in Helmand, NATO and Afghan officials have repeatedly insisted that they will not allow another city to be captured.

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