Afghanistan’s Taliban have captured a strategic district center in southern Helmand province after heavy overnight fighting.
The fall of the town of Sangin means the insurgents have extended their control to almost the entire district, also called Sangin, a month after staging a coordinated assault to capture it.
Provincial military officials maintained Afghan National Army personnel staged a “tactical retreat” from the town, and relocated to their main army base about 20 kilometers from Sangin. Speaking on condition of anonymity, they told VOA that security forces were also able to retrieve their equipment and weapons while withdrawing to the base.
Local media, however, quoted unnamed security officials in Helmand as saying that ANA forces left the district center after suffering heavy casualties and because of a lack of timely reinforcements and supplies.
A Taliban spokesman said the ANA airlifted its besieged forces from Sangin after insurgents staged a major assault late Wednesday. He said the Taliban are now in control of Sangin, its police headquarters, and security outposts around the town.
Afghan Defense Ministry spokesman Dawlat Waziri described as militant propaganda reports the district had fallen to the Taliban and said Afghan forces are still battling the insurgents there.
Russia to host meeting
Most of the districts in Helmand, the largest Afghan province, are under the control of the Taliban. A group of 300 U.S. Marines is due to arrive in Afghanistan later this year for deployment in the troubled province to help local forces reverse insurgent gains.
The insurgent advances come as Russia prepares to host a meeting of regional nations next month. The United States has reportedly also been invited, to discuss ways to promote peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban. Efforts are also reported under way to persuade the insurgent group to attend the meeting.
A Taliban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, has denied reports the group will respond “positively” if invited to Moscow talks on April 14.
The Taliban have long refused to hold direct talks with the Afghan government, calling it a “puppet” of the Untied States.
The Russia-initiated dialogue on Afghanistan, however, continues to cause concerns in Kabul. Afghan Foreign Minister Salahuddin Rabbani reiterated those concerns during a visit to Washington this week.
“Establishing contacts with these terrorist groups will give them a wrong message and they will think that the international community is recognizing them,” Rabbani said in an interview to the New Atlanticist.
This, in turn, would undercut a peace and reconciliation process because the Taliban “will not be encouraged to come to the negotiating table,” noted the Afghan minister.
“When an invitation is extended to us only then we can consider it and comment on it,” Mujahid told VOA.
Meanwhile, Afghan officials say a police officer suspected of links to the Taliban shot dead nine police personnel in the northern Kunduz province late Wednesday and later fled to the insurgent group. Local officials said the incident occurred at a security outpost around the provincial capital and the shooter seized weapons and other equipment.
The Taliban claimed their fighters attacked the outpost and killed 10 Afghan personnel, capturing their weapons and equipment. Afghan troops and police forces have in recent months suffered several deadly, so-called insider attacks.
Last week, an Afghan soldier shot and wounded three U.S. military personnel during a training session at an army base in Helmand. The attacker was shot dead.