The Taliban have captured the first provincial capital in Afghanistan, since they intensified attacks on the government forces.
The militants managed to capture the capital of southwestern province of Nimroz on Friday, according to the deputy governor, Roh Gul Khairzad.
"The city of Zaranj, provincial capital of Nimroz, has fallen to the Taliban," she told AFP, adding that the city had fallen "without a fight.”
The Taliban said earlier that their forces had captured strategic buildings, including the administrative and police headquarters, in Zaranj.
Taliban close Pakistan border crossing
The fall of the provincial capital comes on the same day as the Taliban closed a key border crossing with Pakistan, demanding Islamabad drop visa requirements for Afghans.
"(The crossing) will remain closed for all types of commuting, including transit and trade, for both sides, and pedestrians, until the Pakistani side leaves the gate open, morning to evening, for Afghans holding [Pakistani issued] migration cards or [Afghan] ID cards," the Taliban’s shadow governor for Kandahar province said in the statement.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid also confirmed the border closure, saying the group's leadership had endorsed the move.
Pakistani border officials at Chaman told Reuters the Taliban had placed concrete barriers to block the road on their side of the Friendship Gate.
Pakistan also responded by closing its side of the border, leaving pedestrians, passenger vehicles, and cargo trucks stranded.
Last month, the Taliban captured the southeast Chaman-Spin Boldak border crossing from Afghan forces.
Ever since, Pakistani border officials have begun enforcing visa requirements for Afghans.
The border closure could impact import of medicines and other essential goods into Afghanistan, amid the coronavirus pandemic and the surge in violence, which according to the United Nations has internally displaced hundreds of thousands of people.
Afghanistan heads for ‘catastrophe’: UN envoy
The United Nations’ envoy to Afghanistan, Deborah Lyons, called on the Taliban to cease its attacks on major cities immediately, warning that the country was heading for "catastrophe, so serious that it would have few, if any parallels in this century.”
She said that countries meeting with Taliban representatives should "insist on a general ceasefire" and a "resumption" of the negotiations.
Taliban kill 10 Afghan soldiers, assassinate media official in Kabul
Meanwhile, the Taliban killed at least 10 Afghan soldiers during heavy clashes to capture another provincial capital, and assassinated a top official in the capital Kabul.
The militants intensified fighting on the outskirts of the provincial capital Sheberghan on Friday.
At least 10 Afghan soldiers and a commander of armed members belonging to the Abdul Rashid Dostum militia group, allied with the government, were killed in the northern province of Jowzjan.
“The Taliban launched violent attacks on the outskirts of Sheberghan this week and during heavy clashes a pro-government militia forces' commander loyal to Dustom was killed," said Abdul Qader Malia, the deputy governor of the province.
Violence has been surging across Afghanistan amid the withdrawal of US-led foreign forces from the country. The 2001 invasion of Afghanistan ousted the Taliban from power, but it worsened the security situation in the country.
In the meantime, another provincial council member said nine of the 10 districts of Jowzjan were now controlled by the Taliban.
In an attack in Kabul, the militants shot dead the head of the Afghan government's media information center at a mosque, said Interior Ministry spokesman Mirwais Stanikzai.
"Unfortunately, the savage terrorists have committed a cowardly act once again and martyred a patriotic Afghan," Stanikzai said.
In a message to media, the Taliban claimed responsibility for the assassination.
The assassination attack came days after the Taliban threatened to carry out more attacks against top government officials.
On Tuesday, a coordinated bomb-and-gun attack occurred near the residence of acting Defense Minister General Bismillah Mohammadi in downtown Kabul. Mohammadi survived the attack but at least eight people were killed and 20 others wounded.
The Taliban are now demanding a “the lion’s share of power” in any new government in Afghanistan, according the US special representative for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, who warned on Tuesday that Afghanistan’s situation was rapidly deteriorating.
The United Nations (UN) also warned this week about the safety of tens of thousands of people trapped in the strategic city of Lashkar Gah — the capital of southern Helmand Province — as the Taliban intensified clashes with Afghan military forces to take control, there.
"Violence has only escalated and there is no way to assess the damage in Lashkar Gah as both sides are locked in an intense ground battle... it is hard to even recover bodies by aid agencies," a senior Western security official said in Kabul.
On Thursday a bomb attack hit office of aid group Action Against Hunger, in Lashkar Gah.
"Civilians find themselves in between warring parties. They are being displaced from their homes and are often the first victims of the conflict," said Mike Bonke, Action Against Hunger's Country Director in Afghanistan.
"Humanitarian organizations like Action Against Hunger try their best to support people's needs, but we need safety guarantees from all parties to be able to operate," he said in a statement.
If captured, Lashkar Gah would be the first provincial capital to fall to the militant group. So far, they have taken control of some radio and TV stations in the city.
The government has, however, pledged to defend strategic centers after losing many rural districts to the Taliban in recent months.