A senior Afghan commander charged with defending the capital of Helmand Province, Lashkar Gah, from advancing Taliban militants has urged civilians to evacuate the besieged southern city as soon as possible ahead of a planned army offensive to repel the militants.
General Sami Sadat, whose troops are manning barricades in the city, said in a message on Tuesday that civilians had to “leave as soon as possible so that we can start our 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.”
The remarks came hours after the general warned of consequences for global security if the city fell to the militants.
The latest reports indicate that fighting is taking place near Lashkar Gah’s prison and a building housing the headquarters of police and intelligence agencies. The militants have already seized more than a dozen local radio and TV stations in the city after days of heavy fighting.
The United Nations (UN) said on Tuesday that at least 40 civilians had been killed and more than 100 wounded in the previous 24 hours of fighting in the southern city.
Several provincial capitals have been encircled by the Taliban, and heavy fighting has been going on for days now in the capitals of Helmand and Kandahar provinces in the south, and in the city of Herat in the west.
In Herat, hundreds of residents chanted slogans in support of the government from their rooftops after Afghan soldiers repulsed the latest Taliban assault.
Meanwhile, the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) has called on the warring parties to do more to protect civilians, warning that the impact of “indiscriminate” gunfire and air raids will be “catastrophic.” It said that the Taliban ground offensive and the Afghan forces’ air raids were causing the most harm.
Afghan Foreign Minister Mohammad Hanif Atmar in remarks on Tuesday accused the Taliban of committing “unprecedented war crimes” by killing at least 3,000 civilians and creating unpleasant conditions for 18 million others across the country over the past three months. He also blamed the group for carrying out atrocities in the town of Spin Boldak, which the militants captured last month along the border with Pakistan.
Afghanistan’s Independent Human Rights Commission earlier said the militants had indulged in revenge killings there, leaving dozens of people dead.
Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani said on Monday that Kabul had a plan to restore stability in the country within six months despite the fast-deteriorating security situation.
Under a deal with the Taliban, the United States has been pulling out its troops from Afghanistan. Violence has been surging since. Washington has been blamed for the surge as it has failed to stabilize the security situation after two decades of war and occupation.