Military spokesman says security situation is under control but fighting is continuing.
Fighting raged on Thursday in Helmand after Afghanistan rushed military reinforcements to beat back Taliban insurgents advancing on the besieged capital of the southern poppy-growing province, as officials downplayed fears that the city could fall.
Afghan forces fought back insurgents after they stormed Nawa district, just south of Lashkar Gah city, late on Wednesday, raising alarm that the provincial capital was at risk.
“The security situation in Lashkar Gah is under our control,” said defense ministry spokesman Dawlat Waziri. “We have retaken control of Nawa. Fighting is still going on in the outskirts but we are making progress with clearance operations,” he told AFP, adding that dozens of Taliban were killed in the fight.
Fierce battles in recent days across Helmand, seen as the focal point of the insurgency, has sent thousands of people fleeing to Lashkar Gah, sparking a humanitarian crisis as officials report crippling food and water shortages.
The turmoil convulsing the long-contested province, blighted by a huge opium harvest that helps fund the insurgency, underscores a rapidly unraveling security situation in Afghanistan.
Around 30,000 people have been displaced in Helmand in recent weeks, local officials said, with many fleeing to Lashkar Gah forced to abandon their lentil, maize and cotton crops during the lucrative harvest season. Panicked Lashkar Gah residents said the city was practically besieged, with roads from neighboring districts heavily mined by the insurgents.
Doctors Without Borders (MSF) said it had downscaled its staff in Lashkar Gah, with some non-medical staff relocated from the city. “In Helmand, #Afghanistan, we’re still running Boost hospital… as fighting nears,” the international medical charity tweeted on Wednesday. “We’ve shared coordinates of our 300 bed hospital to approaching warring parties in Helmand.”
The Taliban effectively control or contest 10 of the 14 districts in Helmand, the deadliest province for British and U.S. forces in Afghanistan over the past decade.
The United States has stepped up airstrikes supporting Afghan forces on the ground, highlighting the intensity of the battle in Helmand. NATO officially ended its combat mission in December 2014, but U.S. forces were granted greater powers in June to strike at the insurgents as President Barack Obama vowed a more aggressive campaign.
Washington has deployed several hundred troops in Helmand in recent months. The Taliban briefly captured northern Kunduz city in September last year, the first urban center to fall to the insurgents in a stinging blow to Afghan forces.
As fighting escalates in Helmand, NATO and Afghan officials have repeatedly insisted that they will not allow another city to be captured.