ISLAMABAD - Afghanistan’s Taliban have overrun a key district in a bid to seize control of the entire southern province of Helmand, Afghan and insurgent sources confirmed late Sunday.
The insurgent victory came hours after the provincial deputy governor, Mohammad Jan Rasulyar, warned Helmand was “standing on the brink” of falling to the Taliban unless urgent action is taken.
A Taliban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, told VOA its fighters captured the administrative center of the Sangin district and surrounded scores of retreating Afghan security forces.
Local media quoted provincial officials as saying the besieged personnel, putting their number at around 150, would be killed unless urgent air support is dispatched to the area.
The security men, they added, retreated because they had been under siege in the district center for several days without food or ammunition supplies.
During a Taliban assault on Sangin in November, more than 60 Afghan soldiers were killed while another 70 defected to the insurgency. The crucial district had been one of the deadliest places in Afghanistan for NATO troops who fought for years to secure the volatile poppy growing region.
Intense fighting has also been raging in the district of Grishk and both sides have reportedly suffered heavy losses.
Afghan lawmaker Hashim Alokozai confirmed to local reporters the Taliban had taken control of all police and military installations in Sangin district.
Earlier, Deputy Governor Rasulyar used social media to contact President Ashraf Ghani and inform him about the rapid insurgent advances in his province, which is considered a Taliban heartland, notorious for producing most of the world’s opium.
“Your Excellency, Helmand is standing on the brink and there is a serious need for you to come,” Rasulyar wrote on Facebook. He told the president 90 Afghan security force members had been killed in the fighting during the past two days, although the Taliban put the toll at 200.
“Please save Helmand from tragedy. Ignore those liars who are telling you that Helmand is secure,” he wrote.
Rasulyar detailed problems with logistics and evacuation of wounded personnel, and noted foreign forces only observe, as mandated by the “train, assist, advise” mandate that NATO adopted this year.
Blow to government
If Helmand were to fall, it would deliver a blow to government claims that Afghan security forces, fighting largely alone since international troops ended combat operations last year, are controlling the insurgency, in spite of setbacks such as the fall of Kunduz.
Ghani took office last year pledging to bring peace and prosperity to the war-torn country. But his plans to bring the Taliban into a peace dialogue with the government soured after the July announcement that the group's founder Mullah Mohammad Omar had been dead for more than two years.
A Pentagon report to Congress last week highlighted major shortcomings with Afghan security forces, despite billions of dollars of foreign aid and train.
It also predicted a worsening security situation in 2016 as "a resilient Taliban-led insurgency remains an enduring threat to U.S., coalition, and Afghan forces, as well as to the Afghan people."
Some material for this report came from AP and Reuters.