KABUL: Afghan forces drove Taliban militants out of the centre of a district in the southern province of Helmand on Friday, as they fought back against insurgents who have threatened a series of districts over recent months.
Afghan Deputy Interior Minister Ayoub Salangi said that security forces had retaken the district of Khanishin. The region, in the south of Helmand, had fallen to the Taliban earlier this month.
“The district of Khanishin is cleared of enemies," Salangi stated. "Afghan forces inflicted heavy casualties.”
Helmand is a traditional stronghold of the Taliban and one of the biggest centers of opium production. Over the recent months, it has seen fierce fighting between the militants and Afghan forces. The militants are pressing their insurgency after the withdrawal of most international forces last year.
The Taliban have been seeking to build on last September's brief capture of the northern city of Kunduz, their biggest success since they were driven out from power by a US-led intervention in 2001.
The fighting in Helmand has carried echoes of the campaign that led to the fall of Kunduz, when Taliban fighters established themselves in the surrounding district before moving on the city itself.
In Helmand, the insurgents are threatening the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah. They have already seized the districts of Musa Qal'ah and Now Zad in the province's north, and also claimed Khanishin last week.
Since then, they have come close to taking the district of Marjah, about 35 km from Lashkar Gah, and the focus of a major offensive by US-led NATO troops in 2010.
Afghan police and army units have bitterly complained about the Kabul government, saying they receive inadequate supplies and support, and suffer high rates of desertion.
International partners have looked on with mounting alarm.
US special forces had taken part in fighting in Helmand, reported The New York Times this week. The move shows a rare venture into active combat by the US, and underlines the gravity of the situation facing Afghan government forces.
The report has not yet been confirmed by Nato headquarters in Kabul.