Taliban militants in Afghanistan have intensified battlefield attacks, killing around 57 Afghan security forces and wounding 37 others in the restive southern Helmand province.
Afghan officials say fierce fighting has raged since Saturday, when the Taliban launched a string of coordinated assaults on three districts, including Nad Ali, Gereshk and Marjah. Most of the casualties occurred in Nad Ali and Gereskh, said Major General Asmatullah Dawlatzai.
The insurgents also overran four security outposts on the main road linking Marjah to the provincial capital of Lashkardah in the overnight fighting.
Senior Afghan commanders say fighting is currently raging on the outskirts of Lashkargah. But they have vowed to push back the Taliban, saying national security forces have inflicted heavy casualties on the insurgents. However, no figures were released.
Helmand is the largest province of Afghanistan and is poppy-producing region.
Map showing Helmand province, Afghanistan
The Taliban has stepped up attacks since it appointed Mullah Hibatullah Akhundzada as its new chief. His predecessor, Mullah Mansoor, was killed in a U.S. drone attack in neighboring Pakistan on May 21.
Critics expect fighting and bloodshed to escalate in Afghanistan this summer under Hibatullah, widely known as a conservative Islamist cleric, because he would want to consolidate power through battlefield gains to try to dismiss the impression the killing of his predecessor has weakened the Taliban.
In a significant development on Monday, a key council of pro-Taliban clerics pledged allegiance to Hibatullah.
Hibatullah gets endorsement
In a statement sent to VOA, the council's chief Maulvi Ahmad Rabbani said the decision was taken in the wake of Hibatullah's unanimous election for the top position. The council had refused to endorse Mansoor who faced opposition to his leadership even from within the Taliban.
Meanwhile, the Afghan Interior Ministry said Monday that an army-led operation to open the main highway linking southern Uruzgan and Kandahar provinces has killed at least 22 Taliban insurgents.
The Kandahar police spokesman, Zai Durban, however, told the local Pajhwok news agency that the insurgent deaths occurred in an overnight U.S. drone strike.