Thousands flee Taliban assault in southern Afghanistan

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Lashkar Gah (Afghanistan) (AFP)

Tens of thousands of people in southern Afghanistan have fled their homes after days of heavy fighting between the Taliban and security forces, officials said on Wednesday, as violence continues to escalate despite talks peace in progress.

Taliban militants launched a series of attacks on the city of Lashkar Gah in the troubled Helmand province on Sunday evening, prompting the United States to launch airstrikes in defense of Afghan forces.

The fighting sparked an exodus of local residents who crowded into motorcycles, taxis and buses.

“More than 5,100 families or 30,000 people … have fled the fighting so far,” Sayed Mohammad Ramin, director of the refugee department in Helmand, told AFP.

“Some families still live in the open air on the streets of Lashkar Gah, we have no tents to give them.”

Hekmatullah, a local resident, said he was forced to flee after a mortar hit his neighbor’s house, killing two women.

“The fighting was so intense that I didn’t have time to take extra clothes. I only took my family, ”said Attaullah Afghan, a farmer who fled with his family of 12.

Fighting continued in at least four districts on Wednesday, Afghan officials said, adding that security forces had repelled repeated Taliban assaults in the area.

The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan said thousands had fled and called on Taliban fighters and security forces “to take all possible measures to protect civilians, including safe paths for those who wish to leave ”the region.

A collision between two helicopters early Wednesday in the Nawa district of Helmand also killed at least nine people, according to Omar Zhwak, spokesman for the governor of the province.

The Department of Defense said it was investigating the incident.

Helmand – a Taliban stronghold – is where international forces waged some of the bloodiest campaigns of the 19-year war in Afghanistan.

Under an agreement the Taliban signed with Washington in February, insurgents are not supposed to hit urban areas and are supposed to reduce violence.

The United States has pledged to withdraw all foreign troops from the country by next May in exchange for Taliban security promises and an agreement to start peace talks with the Afghan government in Qatar.

Talks began last month between the Taliban and the Afghan government in Doha, but appear to have stalled as the two sides struggled to establish a basic framework for the negotiations.

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