Families fled their homes as the Afghan army launched a major counterattack against the Taliban in the southern city of Lashkar Gah, residents said Wednesday.
Dozens of civilians have already died in the intense battle for Lashkar Gah, a city of 200,000 people that would be the Taliban’s biggest prize since they launched a nationwide offensive in May.
Resident Saleh Mohammad said hundreds of families had fled after the military asked people to leave on Tuesday, but many were stuck in the crossfire.
“There is no way to escape from the area because the fighting is ongoing. There is no guarantee that we will not be killed on the way,” Mohammad said.
“The government and the Taliban are destroying us.”
The insurgents have taken control of vast swathes of the countryside and key border towns, taking advantage of the security vacuum left by the withdrawal of US forces.
The Taliban are now targeting cities, with fierce fighting for a week around Herat near the western border with Iran, as well as Lashkar Gah and Kandahar in the south.
The capital Kabul was also rocked by deadly bomb-and-gun attacks on Tuesday targeting Defence Minister Bismillah Mohammadi and other politicians.
Mohammadi was safe and Afghan forces repelled the attacks, but five people were killed.
No group has yet claimed the Kabul attack, but Washington pointed the finger at the Taliban.
– ‘Born to die’ –
The early morning fighting in Lashkar Gah followed another night of heavy clashes between the Taliban and Afghan security forces in the city, just hours after the military gave an evacuation order for residents.
“Those families which had financial support or a car have left their homes. The families who can not afford to are obliged to stay in their own homes as we are,” resident Halim Karimi told AFP.
“We don’t know where to go or how to leave. We are born to die.”
The loss of Lashkar Gah, the capital of southern Helmand province, would be a massive strategic and psychological blow for the government.
With the Taliban taking control of some radio and TV stations in the city, and moving into people’s homes, the Afghan army on Tuesday flagged a major counter-offensive.
“Please leave as soon as possible so that we can start our operation,” General Sami Sadat, commander of the 215 Maiwand Afghan Army Corps, said in a message to the city’s population.
“I know it is very difficult for you to leave your houses — it is hard for us too — but if you are displaced for a few days, please forgive us.
The United Nations reported Tuesday that at least 40 civilians had been killed in Lashkar Gah in the previous 24 hours.
– Kabul attack –
In Kabul on Tuesday night, the first bomb blew up in the centre of the city late Tuesday, sending a thick plume of smoke into the sky, AFP correspondents reported.
Defence Minister Mohammadi said it was a suicide car bomb attack targeting his house.
Less than two hours after the car bomb detonated, another loud blast followed by smaller explosions and rapid gunfire, also near the high-security Green Zone that houses several embassies, including the US mission.
A security source said several attackers had stormed a lawmaker’s house after setting off the car bomb and shot at the residence of the defence minister from there.
“Several lawmakers were meeting at the house of this MP to make a plan to counter the Taliban offensive in the north,” the source told AFP.