ISLAMABAD - Authorities in Afghanistan's restive southern province of Helmand say a group of at least 10 heavily-armed Taliban fighters have staged a coordinated assault, triggering a gun battle with security forces.
The attack early Wednesday in the Gereshk district targeted the police headquarters and offices of the Afghan spy agency.
Casualties on both sides
A senior provincial security official, Abdul Jabbar Qahraman, told VOA that security forces have killed nine assailants during a gunfight to eliminate the remaining militants. He went to on to assert that all the assailants were foreign nationals and there were suicide bombers among them.
The militant siege has left at least three security personnel dead while several others wounded, said Qahraman.
A Taliban spokesman, Qari Yosaf Ahmadi, claimed responsibility for the assault, saying it has inflicted heavy casualties on Afghan security personnel.
The fighting prompted provincial authorities to close the main Kandahar-Herat highway, which links the southern region to western Afghanistan. Reports say thousands of passengers have been stranded because of the road closure.
Helmand, which borders Pakistan, is Afghanistan's largest province and a major poppy growing area and is a Taliban heartland. The insurgency has overrun many of the 14 districts of the province after months of fighting.
Protecting narcotics, crime
Narcotics produced in Helmand and surrounding southern provincesis a main source of income for the insurgency, according to the United Nations.
Former Afghan army chief, Sher Mohammad Karimi told VOA that Taliban advances in Helmand are mainly encouraged by a traditional network of gangs involved in illegal narcotics business and other criminal activities.
“The don’t want law and order because if there is law and order they cannot do business. So, it is not just [the] Taliban. [The] Taliban is a part of it because they may get some benefits from their illegal assets," Karimi explained. "So, that is why it makes it difficult for the government to control because in that area most of the people are involved in narcotics and their smuggling.”
Meanwhile, reports say deadly clashes between rival Taliban groups in the western Herat province have left up to 70 militants dead, including senior commanders.
The fighting in the Shindand district erupted earlier this week and involved militants loyal to Taliban chief Mullah Akthar Mansoor and a splinter faction headed by Mullah Mohammad Rasool, provincial authorities told local reporters on Wednesday.
Fighters from Helmand and western provinces of Farah and Nimroz have also arrived to reinforce their respective ranks.
Taliban spokespeople were not available immediately for comments on the alleged clashes in Herat, which borders Iran and where clashes between the rival Taliban groups three months ago had killed dozens of militants.