The general charged with defending one of Afghanistan’s major cities against the Taliban has urged civilians to evacuate the besieged provincial capital ahead of a major army offensive.
General Sami Sadat, whose troops are manning barricades in the city of Lashkar Gah, said civilians should ‘leave as soon as possible so that we can start out operation’.
‘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.’
It came hours after Sadat warned of ‘devastating’ consequences if the Islamists claim victory.
He spoke out amid five days of continual fighting that has seen Taliban fighters seize districts in the city centre, raising fears it could be the first provincial capital to fall.
Sadat had warned a win for the Taliban will inspire terror groups across the globe and could spark a renewed wave of attacks in Europe and America.
‘This is not a war of Afghanistan, this is a war between liberty and totalitarianism,’ the commander warned.
The general charged with defending Lashkar Gah against a Taliban assault (pictured) has warned of devastating consequences for global security if the Islamists claim victory
Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province, has been under attack for five days with Taliban fighters capturing parts of the city centre (pictured)
The commander in charge of Lashkar Gah’s defences has urged civilians to evacuate ahead of an army offensive against the Taliban
Officials said insurgents had seized more than a dozen local radio and TV stations in Lashkar Gah, leaving only one pro-Taliban channel broadcasting Islamic programming.
Sefatullah, director of Sukon radio in the city said fighting was ‘intense’ on Tuesday morning with US and Afghan air force plans pounding Taliban positions.
He added fighting was ongoing near the city’s prison and a building housing the headquarters of police and intelligence agencies.
At least 40 civilians have been killed and more than 100 wounded in the last 24 hours of fighting in the southern city, the United Nations said on Tuesday.
In a tweet, the UN Assistance Mission for Afghanistan expressed ‘deepening concern’ at the plight of civilians in Lashkar Gah, capital of Helmand province, urging an ‘immediate end to fighting in urban areas’.
The Taliban have been on the march in Afghanistan for months, capturing swathes of countryside from government forces as the US and NATO withdrew.
In some places the fighting has been fierce, with Taliban fighters scoring major battlefield victories. In others, government forces have fled or surrendered.
In recent days, the US military has intensified air strikes across the country in a bid to stem Taliban advances.
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.
President Ashraf Ghani and his allies have attempted to portray the retreat as tactical – saying the government is massing forces in cities which are easier to defend and vital for overall control of the country.
But that is now being put to the test, with a major Taliban assault on those regional capitals which had long been expected beginning at the weekend.
Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province which is the Taliban’s historic stronghold, has been the hardest-hit – with fighting there now in its fifth day.
Explosions were seen near police headquarters, the provincial governor’s compound and the city’s main prison on Monday, according to TOLO News.
Afghan security personnel patrol the deserted streets of Lashkar Gah, a city under siege by the Taliban, on Tuesday
The streets of Lashkar Gah were deserted on Tuesday as the Taliban continued their advance towards the provincial capital
Despite major gains by the Taliban in Lashkar Gah, General Sadat told the BBC that he is confident the Islamists will not take the city, believing they cannot sustain the ferocity of their current attack.
But he was sufficiently worried to issue a warning to world leaders about what could happen, if the city falls into their hands.
‘This will increase the hope for small extremist groups to mobilise in the cities of Europe and America, and will have a devastating effect on global security,’ he said.
Also hit were the cities of Kandahar – also in Helmand – and Herat, in the north west.
In Herat 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.
Another official said US warplanes had carried out air strikes, but that could not be confirmed.
Addressing parliament in Kabul on Monday, President Ghani blamed a hasty retreat by American and NATO forces while peace talks were still underway between his government and the Taliban for destabilizing the country.
In some places the fighting has been fierce, with Taliban fighters scoring major battlefield victories. In others, government forces have fled or surrendered
President Ashraf Ghani has warned that America and NATO’s rapid withdrawal from Afghanistan has destabilised the country and led to the Taliban’s resurgence
He then urged ministers to back to a ‘national mobilisation’ drive to bolster the armed forces and drive the Taliban back, predicting a ‘sea change’ in the conflict in the next six months, though did not elaborate further.
Ghani has been forced to turn to regional warlords for support in the fighting, which analysts have warned could drag the country back into a civil war of the kind seen in the 1990s – from which the Taliban first emerged.
He also insisted that his Afghan forces are up to the task and have the ‘capacity’ to defeat the insurgents.
But in past weeks, the army has struggled against the Taliban onslaught and have often been left without reinforcements and resupplies.
Hours after the president’s remarks, Taliban fighters seized control of Helmand province’s government radio and TV building in Lashkar Gah.
Resident Haji Sadullah said they broadcast religious songs and invited people to follow their path for close to an hour on both AM and FM frequencies,
The building is located 400 yards to the north of the provincial governor’s office.
‘Taliban were announcing that Radio Sharia started broadcasting after almost 20 years,’ Sadullah said.
On Sunday, the Afghan armed forces spokesman, Gen. Ajmal Omar Shinwari, told reporters that three provinces in southern and western Afghanistan face critical security situations.
Taliban fighters have also attacked Herat (pictured), in the north west of the country, and Kandahar in the south
Southern Kandahar – the birthplace of the Taliban – as well as Helmand and Herat provinces have witnessed several attacks.
Helmand provincial council chief Attaullah Afghan said the Taliban now have control of Lashkar Gah’s seventh district.
On Monday, elite Afghan commando units were dispatched to help defend the city.
‘There has been relentless gunfire, air strikes and mortars in densely populated areas. Houses are being bombed, and many people are suffering severe injuries,’ said Sarah Leahy, Helmand coordinator for Doctors Without Borders.
The group, also known as Medecins Sans Frontieres or MSF, said in a statement Monday that life in Lashkar Gah was at a standstill as residents hunker down inside their homes, afraid to venture out.
‘Some of our colleagues are staying overnight in the hospital as it’s safer, but also so they can keep on treating patients,’ the organization said. ‘The situation has been dire for months but now it is even worse.’
Faizullah, who like many other Afghans goes by one name, told The Associated Press over the phone that he fled Lashkar Gah with his family and was now following the Helmand River to safety.
Clashes between the Taliban and Afghan forces have intensified, he said, and ‘Afghan security forces are out of supplies and food in the city.’
Back in Kabul, Ghani claimed his government has the financial and political support of the United States and the international community to turn the tide even as he urged the insurgents to rejoin peace talks.
‘We either sit knee to knee at the real negotiating table or break their (Taliban) knees on the battleground’ Ghani said.
Washington and London have lashed out 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.
‘The Taliban chased and identified past and present government officials and killed these people who had no combat role in the conflict,’ the group said.
Top US diplomat Antony Blinken also slammed the militant leaders.
An Afghanistan without a democratic, inclusive government would be a ‘pariah state,’ he said, adding that the international recognition the group wants will not be possible if it ‘seeks to take the country by force and commits the kind of atrocities that have been reported.’
Fighting across the country, meanwhile, has displaced around 80,000 children from the start of June, humanitarian organisation Save the Children said on Tuesday, adding that many schools and health facilities had also been damaged.