Taliban 'close to capturing Sangin' as militants step up assault on Helmand

The are inching closer to capturing Sangin district as the militants intensify their prolonged assault on government forces in Afghanistan’s pivotal Helmand province.

After the insurgents in December, the Afghan army and police sent reinforcements to stave them off.

Since then, security forces have maintained a small bastion consisting of a few government buildings and two army bases, with the Taliban controlling the centre of town and large swaths of rural territory.

On Saturday night the Taliban launched a fierce attack on the government buildings, killing nine soldiers, wounding seven and capturing another three, according to Karim Atal, the head of Helmand’s provincial council. The night before, the Taliban had killed four soldiers and wounded seven, he said.

“Fierce fighting is ongoing now, and some of the checkpoints are under heavy attack. No reinforcements have been sent yet,” Atal said.

“The district is still in the hands of the government but if the situation continues and the government does not take serious measures, the district might fall,” he said.

An unnamed army commander told the BBC that the government’s positions were in imminent danger of falling. “Our superiors all know, including the commander of the brigade and the army’s chief of staff,” he said.

A spokesman for Helmand’s governor, Omar Zawak, said the security forces had the situation under control and would be able to repel the Taliban. However, the governor’s office has previously been known to downplay the militant threat. Last month, the governor’s deputy, Mohammad Jan Rasoolyar, on Facebook for reinforcements.

Though of little strategic importance, Sangin holds immense symbolic value for foreign troops who fought there and, hence, also for the Taliban. Nearly a quarter of all British troops who died in were killed in Sangin.

But Sangin also forms part of a broader Taliban strategy to encircle the provincial capital, which grows more vulnerable every time the militants take a new patch of territory in its vicinity.

Since last summer, the Taliban have performed a slow, sustained pincer movement around the capital, Lashkar Gah, gaining ground in all surrounding districts. Several areas that were at the core of British efforts in Helmand are now almost completely under Taliban control, including Musa Qala and Babaji. The militants also threaten the Kajaki dam, a large, uncompleted aid project that was meant to power southern Afghanistan.

Haji Daud, a tribal elder who recently fled Sangin to Lashkar Gah, confirmed there had been large-scale attacks against government forces over the past few days. “But the district is still controlled by the government,” he said.

Though the fighting has ebbed and flowed for months, there is widespread concern that food shortages and incessant battle are exhausting government forces.

In other parts of the province, US forces have joined their Afghan counterparts on the ground in fending off the Taliban. In early January, a US soldier was killed in Marjah outside Lashkar Gah, the first known American soldier to die in battle in southern Afghanistan since combat operations officially ended in 2014.

Source : theguardian[dot]com
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