Kandahar: Fierce fighting between Afghan security forces and Taliban fighters that has killed dozens of people has spread to three districts in a volatile southern province, officials said today.
The ongoing clashes in Helmand province come as the Islamic militant group has launched its so-called summer offencive, in which it takes advantage of warmer weather to step up attacks against the Western-backed government in a major test for President Hamid Karzai`s forces who are trying to show they can protect the people as the US and its allies wind down their combat mission.
Taliban fighters began attacking police checkpoints in Helmand`s Sangin district on Sunday, forcing the government to send reinforcements to bolster the local security forces, officials said.
Afghan Defence Ministry spokesman Gen Mohammad Zahir Azimi said today that the clashes had spread to three other districts, Kajaki, Musa Qala and Nowzad.
The Taliban push to reassert control in former strongholds is particularly significant because Helmand province was touted in 2009 as a showcase of a major US military offencive to drive the militants from the area.
The US-led coalition said today that it was providing support to the Afghan national security forces in the area over the past 72 hours, including helicopter escorts for medical evacuations, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets and close air support.
"All checkpoints in Helmand are currently under ANSF control and this remains an ANSF-led operation," the coalition said in an emailed statement.
At least 27 people, including five civilians, nine soldiers and 13 policemen, have been killed since the fighting began, provincial government spokesman Omar Zwak said. He said dozens of militants also had been killed, but he could not give a figure.
"Right now an operation by the Afghan security forces is underway in Sangin district," Zwak said. "More than 1,000 families have been displaced as result of firefights in their villages and they are in need of shelter, food and water."
Taliban spokesman Qari Yousef Ahmadi claimed responsibility for the attacks in a statement sent to the media. He said the militants had overrun several checkpoints, but the Taliban frequently issue exaggerated claims that are nearly impossible to independently confirm.
Karzai issued a statement about the fighting late yesterday and called on the Taliban not to kill innocent civilians. The presidential palace also announced today that the government has approved about USD 90,000 (5 million Afghanis) for relatives of those who had been killed or wounded in the conflict as well as other civilians who have suffered.