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Afghan army urges civilians to leave Lashkar Gah ahead of Taliban operation

The US has called for a ceasefire, accusing Taliban of potential war crimes, but the insurgents are now focused on capturing key provincial capitals after taking control of much of rural Afghanistan.

FILE: Afghan Special Forces and policemen prepare themselves for battle with the Taliban on the outskirts of Lashkar Gah, capital of Helmand in Afghanistan. (Abdul Mailk / Reuters)

Residents of Afghanistan’s Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province, have been urged to evacuate as the Afghan army prepares a major offensive against Taliban insurgents after three days of heavy fighting.

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The Taliban have seized control of much of rural Afghanistan since foreign forces began the last stage of their withdrawal in early May, but are now focused on capturing provincial capitals, where they are meeting stiffer resistance.

Fighting is raging for Lashkar Gah with the United Nations saying at least 40 civilians had been killed in the last 24 hours.

General Sami Sadat, commander of the 215 Maiwand Afghan Army Corps, told residents to get out as soon as they could.

“Please leave as soon as possible so that we can start our operation,” he said in a message to the city of 200,000 delivered via the media.

“I know it is very difficult for you to leave your houses – it is hard for us too – but if you are displaced for a few days please forgive us,” he added.

“We are fighting the Taliban wherever they are. We will fight them and… we will not leave a single Taliban alive.”

Officials said on Monday night that insurgents had seized more than a dozen local radio and TV stations in the city, leaving only one pro-Taliban channel broadcasting Islamic programming.

Renewed push for ceasefire

In recent days, the US military has intensified air strikes across the country in a bid to stem Taliban advances.

The US Embassy in Kabul on Tuesday called for a ceasefire, urging for a political settlement.

“The Taliban has repeatedly violated Afghans’ human rights. We call on the Taliban to respect the rights of every Afghan. There must be a political settlement,” the mission tweeted.

The United Nations also warned on Tuesday that “indiscriminate” gunfire and air strikes were hurting civilians the most.

At least 40 civilians were killed and more than 100 wounded in the last 24 hours in Lashkar Gah, the UN Assistance Mission for Afghanistan said.

“Deepening concern for Afghan civilians… as fighting worsens,” the United Nations Assistance Mission for Afghanistan (UNAMA) tweeted.

“UN urges immediate end to fighting in urban areas.”

The loss of Lashkar Gah would be a massive strategic and psychological blow for the government, which has pledged to defend cities at all costs after losing much of the rural countryside to the Taliban over the summer.

In Herat, another city under siege, hundreds of residents chanted “Allahu akbar” (God is greatest) from their rooftops after government forces repulsed the latest Taliban assault.

Afghan officials said government forces had managed to push back the insurgents from several areas of that city – including near the airport, which is vital for resupplies.

Later in the day, Afghan media confirmed the Taliban had been pushed back but that some fighting continued near the road leading to Herat’s international airport.

‘War crimes’

Washington and London lashed out a day earlier at the Taliban, accusing them of committing atrocities that may amount to “war crimes” in the town of Spin Boldak, which the insurgents captured last month along the border with Pakistan.

Afghanistan’s Independent Human Rights Commission earlier said the insurgents had indulged in revenge killings there, leaving at least 40 people dead.

Fighting across the country, meanwhile, has displaced around 80,000 children from the start of June, humanitarian organisation Save the Children said Tuesday, adding that many schools and health facilities had also been damaged.

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