The Taliban have overrun large swaths of a key district in Helmand as the militants step up attempts to take control of the southern province that was a main focus for foreign troops in .
The encroachment on Sangin follows a months-long offensive in which the have taken, and in some cases held, crucial Helmand districts.
Early on Monday morning the Taliban stormed police headquarters in Sangin, a western official with knowledge of the province said, citing local sources. An airstrike, probably by Nato forces, prevented the militants from taking the administrative centre.
On Sunday, Helmand’s deputy governor, Mohammad Jan Rasoolyar, made an unusual plea to the Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani.
“I know that bringing up this issue on social media will make you very angry,” Rasoolyar wrote on Facebook. “But … Helmand stands on the brink. Ninety men have been killed in Gereshk and Sangin districts in the last two days.”
Government officials contradicted each other about events on the ground. Javid Faisal, spokesman for Afghan chief executive Abdullah Abdullah, denied on Twitter that Sangin had been captured but later deleted the tweet.
In a press conference on Monday morning, Helmand’s governor said the main security buildings in Sangin were under government control, as did an Afghan army spokesman.
Meanwhile, Nargis Rokhshani, a local provincial council member, warned that the entire province was in danger of falling to the Taliban.
“If the British and American forces do not help, and the government does not think about Helmand, Helmand will be in danger,” she said.
More than 100 British soldiers died in Sangin – an opium-rich and insurgency-prone district – and it still holds a central place in the international coalition’s war efforts in Afghanistan’s south. Recently, at least four UK and US special operations teams joined the fight to defend Helmand, according to a .
Helmand is also one of the deadliest areas for Afghan security forces. Though estimates are imprecise, more than 2,000 of its soldiers have reportedly been killed or wounded in Helmand in the year up to November, according to the western official.