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Taliban advance in key Afghan province despite deputy governor’s Facebook appeal

AFP file picture | Smoke rises following clashes between Afghan troops and Taliban insurgents in the Sangin district, in Helmand province

Taliban insurgents on Monday overran the strategic district of Sangin in the southern Afghan province of Helmand, a day after a local official made the unusual move of turning to Facebook in a public appeal to the president for help.

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"I know that bringing up this issue on social media will make you very angry … But I cannot be silent any more," Mohammad Jan Rasulyar, the deputy governor of Helmand, wrote in the post, saying he took to the social network after having failed to make contact with President Ashraf Ghani through any other means.

"Helmand stands on the brink [of falling to the Taliban] … Ninety men have been killed in Gereshk and Sangin districts in the last two days," he said, accusing Ghani’s entourage of not having informed the leader of the gravity of the situation.

But despite the plea, there was no immediate reaction from Ghani's office on Sunday. The defence ministry also rejected the troop death claims and denied that Helmand was at risk of falling to the Taliban.

On Monday, however, Helmand province officials said the insurgents had overrun Sangin and surrounded the police compound.

“Right now there is a heavy fight going on between Afghan security forces and Taliban in Sangin in the district governor’s building and the police chief’s headquarters,” Governor Mirza Khan Rahimi told Reuters.

The governor said Taliban fighters were outside the compound walls and that the situation risked slipping entirely out of control.

In Kabul, meanwhile, Abdullah Abdullah, the chief executive of the National Unity Government, on Monday pledged “immediate action” to save the district.

“This action will repel enemy attacks,” he said.

‘Too late’

But a police official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said it was already too late for any intervention from the central government, noting that it was no longer a question of holding onto the district but a matter of trying to save the lives of around 170 police trapped inside the compound.

“If we don’t get urgent assistance from the local government, we will lose all our forces,” he said.

The officer said the roads into Sangin were now completely controlled by the Taliban and unless army units were able to break through, it would not be possible to rescue the police.

The situation in Helmand carries sharp echoes of the situation that led to the Taliban’s biggest success in the 14-year war: their brief capture of the northern city of Kunduz in September.

Helmand province, a major centre of opium cultivation and a traditional Taliban heartland that British and American forces struggled for years to control, has been the scene of fierce fighting for months.

Army and police units have complained of being left without adequate supplies and reinforcements as the Taliban seized three districts and threatened other centres including the provincial capital, Laskar Gah.

Reports of mass desertions, poorly performing and badly supplied army units, and weak leadership have underlined the problems facing government forces fighting alone since the withdrawal of international troops from combat last year.

The fighting comes as Afghan and Pakistani officials have been pushing for a resumption of peace talks with the Taliban, which broke off after the announcement in July that the movement’s leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, had died two years earlier.

That announcement triggered a bloody leadership struggle within the Taliban. But internal divisions have seemingly done nothing to lessen the effectiveness of their fighters, who have conducted a series of high-profile attacks in recent months.

(FRANCE 24 with AP, AFP, REUTERS)

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