Taliban battle into west Afghan city in new crisis for government

Herat, AfghanistanUpdated: May 15, 2018, 05:47 PM IST

File Photo. Photograph:(DNA)

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Residents of the city, capital of Farah province on the border with Iran, have warned for months the city was vulnerable

Taliban fighters with heavy weapons and night-vision equipment fought their way close to the centre of the western city of Farah on Tuesday, as Afghan government forces backed by US air strikes battled to keep control, officials and residents said.

Residents of the city, capital of Farah province on the border with Iran, have warned for months the city was vulnerable and the attack threatened a repeat of the Taliban's capture of the northern city of Kunduz, which fell briefly in 2015.

"The Taliban are moving very fast, if the government does not take serious and speedy action, the province is going to collapse to Taliban," said Hamidullah, a resident of the city reached by telephone.

Residents said Taliban forces began their attack at around 2.00 am (2130 GMT Monday) from several directions.

Mohammad Radmanish, a spokesman for the defence ministry in Kabul, said security forces from neighbouring provinces had been ordered to Farah to protect civilians and government buildings and said the Taliban had been pushed out of the city.

"Fortunately, special forces and commandos are in the city and there is no danger of it falling," he said, adding that the Afghan air force was attacking Taliban positions.

The NATO-led Resolute Support mission in Kabul said in a statement the city remained under government control and US A-10 attack aircraft were supporting Afghan forces in defending it.

However, the attack adds to the problems facing President Ashraf Ghani's government, which has come under increasing public pressure over worsening security ahead of parliamentary elections due in October.

There were no immediate casualty assessments but residents said there were wounded and dead on both sides as well as among the civilian population.

In one incident, at least 18 soldiers were killed by a suicide bomber in the Askarabad area of the city, Farid Bakhtawar, head of a provincial council said. However, Radmanish said only two soldiers were killed in the blast.

Officials said the insurgents were close to overrunning four police districts and the city's headquarters of the National Directorate of Security, the main intelligence service, was under heavy attack.

"Farah is in dire need of air support," Dadullah Qane, a provincial council member, said by telephone. "The Taliban are well equipped with heavy arms and night vision equipment."

He said fighting had come close to the provincial governor's house and police headquarters and the governor and other officials had left the city.

Many officials, including the governor's spokesman, were not answering their telephones and it was not immediately possible to confirm the governor's whereabouts.

New US strategy

The fighting adds to the growing number of crisis points around Afghanistan since the Taliban began their annual spring offensive last month, including a series of deadly suicide attacks in the capital, Kabul.

District centres have been lost or threatened in the northern provinces of Baghlan and Badakhshan and there has been heavy fighting in Faryab in the northwest and Ghazni and Zabul, south of Kabul.

Although the insurgents have been unable to take and hold any provincial centre, they are active across Afghanistan and the government has firm control over no more than 56 percent of the country, according to U.S. estimates.

The United States has boosted its assistance to the government under a new strategy announced by President Donald Trump last year, sending thousands of additional troops and advisers and stepping up air strikes to support Afghan forces.

Although US commanders have been relatively upbeat about improvements in the performance of Afghan forces, the Taliban appear to have made significant gains this year.

Farah, a remote and sparsely populated province on the border with Iran, has seen months of heavy fighting, with hundreds of police and soldiers killed and severe losses inflicted even on elite special forces units.

Farah residents have said Taliban forces were being supported by Iran. The governor of the province stepped down in January, denouncing worsening security and what he said was political interference and corruption.

The province, which also borders the opium-rich Taliban heartland of Helmand province, has key smuggling routes into Iran. Hundreds of fighters have moved there as US and Afghan forces have stepped up operations in Helmand.

As the fighting raged on Tuesday, Taliban spokesman Qari Yousuf Ahmadi warned civilians to remain in their houses.

"Mujahideen have nothing to do with civilians, only military positions are the target," he said in a statement, referring to Taliban fighters.

Residents said shops, schools and government offices were closed and the Taliban had set up posts around the city and were checking identity cards and preventing people from fleeing.