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Friday 23 March 2018

Extra Afghan troops bid to hold besieged Sangin under Taliban attack

Afghan National Army soldiers guard at a checkpoint on the way to the Sangin district of Helmand province (AP)
Afghan National Army soldiers guard at a checkpoint on the way to the Sangin district of Helmand province (AP)

The Afghan military has rushed reinforcements to a besieged southern district threatened for days with takeover by the Taliban.

As fighting in the Sangin district of southern Helmand province continues, Afghan army and police forces arrived to help security forces pinned down for days in the besieged area, and defence minister Masoom Stanekzai appealed for stepped-up Nato assistance and military support.

Speaking to reporters in the capital, Kabul, Mr Stanekzai said the country's overstretched security forces need the international military coalition's help, especially air support, which would help reduce casualties.

Sangin is an important poppy-growing district in Helmand, which borders Pakistan and sits on transport routes for drugs, arms and other lucrative contraband.

The Taliban, whose intensified war against Afghan forces has not slowed down with the colder season, have been besieging it for days and have nearly completely run over the district.

"The Helmand battle is not easy because the province has a long border, is a core of opium production, and our enemies are well-equipped and deeply involved in the smuggling of drugs," Mr Stanekzai said. "These factors complicate the battle for Sangin."

By mid-afternoon on Wednesday, the Taliban spokesman for southern Afghanistan, Qari Yousaf Ahmadi, tweeted that "Sangin district has completely collapsed to the Taliban", and that insurgents have captured Afghan soldiers and ammunition.

The insurgents are prone to exaggerating its battlefield successes, and Kabul officials denied Sangin has fallen.

However, Helmand's deputy governor Mohammad Jan Rasulyar said all lines of communication with Sangin have been cut and there is no immediate information available on the situation there.

"We already said that our forces are weak and need back-up but because we have no communication with our forces, we don't know whether the Taliban have captured Sangin or not," Mr Rasulyar added.

In an army base in the embattled district, an Afghan soldier described a dire situation, saying a handful of Afghan troops inside are fighting to the last, trying to keep the Taliban out.

Yaseen Zamarai said the Taliban are outside the building and had been pushed back after entering once earlier in the day.

"We need help, we can't hold them for much longer," Mr Zamarai said, his voice cracking. "It's not that we are afraid of death, but we didn't think that our brothers would leave us like this."

Britain has sent a small contingent of soldiers to Helmand as advisers under the new Nato mandate to train the Afghan forces.

The US and Nato have around 13,000 troops in the country, most of them operating under the training mandate.

Meanwhile, at an air base outside of Kabul, US troops saluted fallen comrades during a memorial ceremony for six American soldiers killed in a Taliban attack this week.

The six died when a suicide bomber drove his explosives-laden motorcycle into a joint Nato-Afghan patrol near the Bagram Air Field on Monday.

Two US troops and an Afghan were also injured in the attack - the deadliest day for American troops in Afghanistan since May 2013.

Press Association

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