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At least 14 killed in Helmand as Afghans battle Taliban on multiple fronts

A Humvee sits parked next to the Helmand provincial police headquarters sign in Lashkar Gah, Afghanistan, in this file photo from July 2, 2012. A suicide car bombing on Monday killed 14 people, including 10 Afghan police officers, as the Taliban launched a large-scale attack on the capital in southern Helmand province, the heartland of the insurgency.

BENJAMIN BARR/U.S. MARINE CORPS

By CHAD GARLAND AND ZUBAIR BABAKARKHAIL | STARS AND STRIPES Published: October 10, 2016

KABUL, Afghanistan — Afghan forces were fending off Taliban assaults on multiple fronts Monday, including the capital of southern Helmand province, where a car bomb killed at least 14 people.

In the north, Afghan security forces were battling for an eighth day to push insurgents from the city of Kunduz, and in western Farah province, Afghan forces called for reinforcements after insurgents surrounded an outpost there.

Despite the Taliban advances, both Afghan and U.S. officials expressed confidence in the Afghan security forces and their ability to withstand and repel the insurgent assaults.

In Lashkar Gah, capital of restive Helmand province, Taliban fighters entered the city and set off a suicide car bomb killing at least 14 people, including 10 police officers, The Associated Press reported.

The Taliban briefly held a police station in the second police district of Lashkar Gah before Afghan forces responded and “kicked out” the insurgents, said Omar Zwak, spokesman for the provincial governor.

Since the start of the fighting season this spring, the insurgents have expanded their presence in the province, closing in on the capital.

Brig. Gen. Charles Cleveland, spokesman for U.S. Forces-Afghanistan, said U.S. “combat enablers” were in the area and prepared to support the Afghans as needed. Enablers can include air support and Special Forces troops.

The situation was “fluid” in Helmand, he said, but officials remain confident the Afghan security forces can continue to defend the country’s population themselves. They are doing better this year than last year, he said, and are on a “positive trajectory.”

Cell service in Lashkar Gah appeared to have been cut earlier in the day, but Twitter users posted updates apparently from the area, including one image of a pillar of smoke rising above the city.

Cecilia Strada, president of the medical charity Emergency, which operates a hospital in Lashkar Gah, said on Twitter that at least 30 wounded had been brought to the hospital shortly after the suicide car bomb exploded.

Emergency said on Twitter that a rocket landed 30 meters from the hospital on Sunday and 19 wounded had been brought in after that attack.

Helmand, considered the Taliban’s heartland, has been the site of some of the deadliest fighting in the 15-year war since the U.S.-led invasion ousted the group in 2001. It remains strategically important for the insurgents, as it’s the main source of the country’s opium, the Taliban’s cash crop, worth an estimated $4 billion a year, much of which funds the insurgency.

Afghans continue to pay a heavy price for the fighting there. On Twitter, Doctors Without Borders, which operates a hospital in the provincial capital, said Monday that it receives more than 150 new patients a day.

Interior Ministry spokesman Sediq Sediqqi said in Kabul that security forces had responded quickly in Lashkar Gah, AP reported. “We have enough forces in Lashkar Gah, plus supportive and commando units to respond to the Taliban’s attack,” Sediqqi said.

The Taliban have continually threatened provincial capitals this year, especially in Helmand and Kunduz, but U.S. and Afghan officials have promised they will not fall.

“We knew that there would be additional fighting and additional challenges following the Eid holiday,” Cleveland said, referring to last month’s Eid al-Adha. “The Taliban are trying to drag out the fighting to undermine the population’s sense of security, but the Taliban have been unable to take or hold any major population centers or strategic locations anywhere in the country this year.”

garland.chad@stripes.com
Twitter: @chadgarland
 

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