ISLAMABAD - Government forces in Afghanistan battled a major assault Saturday by Taliban insurgents on Lashkar Gah, the capital of embattled southern Helmand province, and officials said clashes were ongoing inside parts of the city.
Both warring sides reportedly suffered heavy casualties. The fierce fighting forced civilians to flee to safety amid allegations the Afghan air force had bombed and destroyed a city hospital.
An Italian medical charity, Emergency, confirmed fighting was taking place inside the city of Lashkar Gah. "Our hospital is full. Four extra bed spaces added so far," the organization tweeted.
Provincial Governor Mohammad Ali Alizai told reporters the arrival of reinforcements and airstrikes against insurgent positions had helped contain Taliban advances. But security officials confirmed to VOA that clashes were continuing in parts of the provincial capital.
Most of Helmand's districts are under the control of the Taliban.
Meanwhile, Afghan forces and Taliban insurgents have been locked in heavy fighting in the adjoining city of Kandahar, the capital of the province of the same name, where civilian families were seen fleeing their homes Saturday.
Fighting in Herat
Heavy fighting also was raging outside the capital of the western Herat province, next to the country's border with Iran. Officials said the city's airport remained closed for a third day because of fighting between government and insurgent forces.
A rocket attack Friday targeted the entrance to the United Nations office in Herat, killing a local security guard and wounding other officers. The U.N. denounced and blamed the Taliban for carrying out the attack.
Afghan media reported Saturday fighting had displaced hundreds of civilians in Herat. The private TOLO news channel reported that out of Herat's 17 districts, only one district and the provincial capital were controlled by Kabul, while the rest were held by the insurgents.
A government spokesman in Herat told VOA's Afghan Service on Saturday that "foreign forces" carried out airstrikes on Taliban positions in Enjeel and Guzara districts in the province, killing dozens of militants. He did not elaborate.
There was no response from the Taliban to the official claims, nor could VOA immediately verify them from independent sources. Both Afghan adversaries often release inflated details about battlefield gains.
Security conditions have deteriorated across Afghanistan since May 1, when the United States and NATO allies began withdrawing their last remaining troops from the country after 20 years.
The foreign military drawdown apparently emboldened the Taliban, and they unleashed a widespread onslaught against Afghan forces, capturing nearly half of the country's roughly 420 districts.
FILE - Afghan security forces stand near an armored vehicle during fighting between Afghan security forces and Taliban fighters in the Busharan area on the outskirts of Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province, May 5, 2021.
The Taliban also have previously assaulted and tried to seize control of Lashkar Gah but they were beaten back mainly because Afghan forces at the time had the backing of U.S. military airstrikes.
That cover is no longer available to Afghan forces, though U.S. officials confirmed conducting some strikes against Taliban positions in Helmand in recent days, apparently to keep them from threatening the provincial capital.
The insurgents control almost all the districts around Lashkar Gah.
Taliban hang two
The Taliban hanged two men Saturday from the entrance gate of a nearby town, accusing them of kidnapping children.
An insurgent statement sent to journalists said the men were found guilty of the crime by a Taliban court. The incident revived memories of the harsh Islamic rule the Taliban had imposed on most of Afghanistan between 1996 and 2001.
The U.S.-led military coalition invaded Afghanistan and ousted the Taliban weeks after deadly terror strikes against America in September 2001 that Washington said were plotted by al-Qaida leaders from their sanctuaries on Afghan soil at the time.
VOA's Afghan Service contributed to this report.