Officials in Afghanistan said national security forces, backed by U.S. airstrikes, have regained control from the Taliban of a key district center in the volatile southern Helmand province.
Provincial deputy governor Mohammad Jan Rasulyar told VOA Thursday that at least 45 Taliban fighters were killed and many more wounded in air raids before Afghan forces entered the Sangin district center in Helmand province.
A U.S. military spokesman, Colonel Michael Lawhorn, confirmed to VOA that U.S. aircraft also participated in the fighting.
“U.S. forces conducted two strikes in Sangin district, Helmand province, December 23, against threats to the force,” Lawhorn said.
Helmand borders Pakistan's violence-hit southwestern Baluchistan province and the war zone is located around 90 miles west of the provincial capital, Quetta, the Pakistani city from where Afghan officials allege the Taliban's leadership council named "Quetta Shura" directs the insurgency.
Interior Ministry spokesman Sediq Seddiqi told VOA that the overnight counteroffensive led by Afghan special forces unit was launched in three areas of the important district. He said the commander of the insurgent forces leading the fight in Sangin was also killed along with a large number of his fighters.
"We also were able to provide ammunition and support to our forces in Sangin. The fight is still going in Sangin. There are areas in which the Taliban are still there and they are fighting against our forces. So, we will continue to focus on Sangin until Taliban are completely defeated in Sangin," Seddiqi said.
He said Afghan forces are preparing to launch operations in other parts of Helmand.
Meanwhile, the Taliban has condemned the extension of U.N. Security Council sanctions against the group and “direct involvement” of NATO’s Resolute Support Mission in the Helmand fighting.
Afghan officials have defended the deployment of a “small group” of British military personnel to the province “in the advisory role.”
“The corrupt Kabul administration also welcomed this cruel abhorrent decision of the UNSC and asked for even more sanction against the Islamic Emirate (the Taliban),” the Islamist insurgency said in a statement Thursday.
The statement also alleged “the barbaric occupation forces” are directly engaged in the Helmand fighting and conducting “blind airstrikes” on residential areas.
“We see the above obstacles created in front of peace as an intentional effort to sabotage the peace process and consider these steps the main cause of the protraction of war in our beloved homeland,” the Taliban statement said.
The Taliban reiterated their jihad against the “foreign occupation" of Afghanistan until the last soldier has left the country.
China and the U.S. are pushing the Afghan government and neighboring Pakistan to restart peace talks with the Taliban.
A newly formed "steering committee" comprising officials from the four countries is expected to meet in the first week of January either in Kabul or Islamabad to discuss possible venue and terms for direct talks between Afghan government and Taliban officials.
However, in response to a VOA query, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujhaid refused to say whether it has decided to come to the negotiating table.
Pakistan military Chief General Raheel Sharif is due to visit Afghanistan before the end of this month to discuss with leaders in Kabul "prospects and difficulties" facing the Afghan reconciliation process, Pakistan foreign policy adviser Sartaj Aziz said Wednesday.
It is widely perceived that Taliban commanders are using Pakistani soil for insurgent activities in Afghanistan and are being secretly supported by the neighboring country's intelligence agency, charges Islamabad vehemently denies.