US aircraft have carried out two airstrikes to help prop up Afghan forces battling the Taliban in the key Helmand district of Sangin, earlier this week.
The Taliban said on Wednesday that they had captured police and administrative buildings in the district centre, where small groups of police had been holding out.
However, government officials have denied the claim and said they had pushed back the insurgents. The Taliban are seeking to re-establish their hardline Islamist regime after being toppled by US-led military intervention in 2001.
US army colonel Michael Lawhorn, a spokesman for Nato forces in , said the US carried out two airstrikes on Wednesday evening “against threats against the force”, which includes the Afghan security forces.
Lawhorn insisted there were no US forces in Sangin, but was referring only to US soldiers under Nato’s train, advise and assist mission.
Gen Abdul Wadood Najrabi, commander of the second brigade of the Afghan National Army’s 215th Corps, said Afghan forces also conducted airstrikes against the Taliban on Wednesday night, which helped break the militants’ grip on Sangin town. Najrabi said Taliban pressure on the town had subsided and that airdropped ammunition and food had helped reinforce government troops, though fighting continued.
The respite for Afghan forces came after a battle on Wednesday night in which Taliban fighters entered the government compound in the centre of town at 11pm local time, according to Shamsullah Sahrayee, a tribal elder in Sangin. At 4am, after receiving reinforcements, the government forces managed to push back the Taliban. Sahrayee said there was fighting, including in the bazaar in the town centre, and that 27 police and army casualties had been flown to the Afghan army barracks at Camp Shorabak.
The Taliban already held three Helmand districts as well as large parts of the rest of the province outside the main centres and control key strategic roads, making it hard to reinforce and resupply security force units cut off by their advance.
The loss of Sangin, which British and US forces fought for years to control, would be a heavy blow for western powers backing President Ashraf Ghani’s government. The Afghan army has been fighting alone since international forces ended combat operations last year.
Nato military advisers have been sent to Helmand, , but officials say they have a purely advisory role and they have not confirmed reports that special forces units are present.