Airstrikes Pummel Taliban Positions in Southern Afghanistan

U.S. and Afghan airstrikes hit Taliban targets overnight in southern Helmand province in an effort to dislodge the insurgents after they captured much of the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah, officials said Wednesday. More airstrikes followed on Thursday. Meanwhile, Taliban forces made additional gains in the country’s north.

The United Nations and Human Rights Watch asked both sides to take care to prevent civilian casualties as the fighting rages on. The Taliban have waged a fierce push over the past months as U.S. and NATO forces complete their pullout from the war-torn country. They have taken large swaths of land and have now turned their guns on larger urban centers.

Ghulam Wali Afghan, a lawmaker from Helmand, told The Associated Press that his relatives and constituents in Lashkar Gah have told him of bodies in the streets and residents hiding inside their homes, too afraid to venture out and collect the dead.

After a night of heavy airstrikes, the Defense Ministry said Wednesday that the Taliban have suffered heavy losses in Lashkar Gah, though there was no immediate way to confirm that statement. Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid denied the losses.

The authorities did not say whether Afghan forces have taken back territory. On Tuesday, residents and officials had said the Taliban control nine out of 10 districts in the city.

The fall of Lashkar Gah would be a major turning point in the Taliban offensive and it would also be the first provincial capital to be captured by the insurgents in several years. The fighting this week has kept residents of Lashkar Gah trapped and hunkered down inside their homes.

On Wednesday, the province’s hospital chief, Sher Ali Shakir, urged people to remain in their houses, saying that in past 24 hours at least seven civilians were killed and 101 were wounded. Most of the injuries were bullet wounds, he said.