Afghan forces battle to thwart Taliban assaults on key cities
Commandoes deployed in Herat city: All flights cancelled after Kandahar Airport hit by rockets: UN demands probe into attack on its Herat compound
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Afghan government forces struggled against Taliban assaults on several major cities Sunday as the insurgents stepped up a nationwide offensive that saw a key airport in the south come under rocket fire overnight.
Hundreds of commandos were deployed to the western city of Herat while authorities in the southern city of Lashkar Gah called for more troops to rein in the assaults.
Fighting has surged across the country since early May when US-led foreign forces began a final withdrawal from Afghanistan that is now almost complete.
After seizing large tracts of rural territory and capturing key border crossings, the Taliban have started assaulting provincial capitals with gruelling onslaughts.
Flights out of Kandahar, Afghanistan's second-largest city and the former stronghold for the insurgents, were halted after rockets struck the airport before dawn.
Airport chief Massoud Pashtun said two rockets had hit the runway and repairs were underway with planes likely to resume service later on Sunday.
The facility is vital to maintaining the logistics and air support needed to keep the Taliban from overrunning the city, while also providing aerial cover for large tracts of southern Afghanistan.
The attack came as the Taliban inched closer to overwhelming at least two other provincial capitals, including nearby Lashkar Gah in Helmand province.
"Fighting is going on inside the city and we have asked for special forces to be deployed," Ataullah Afghan, head of Helmand provincial council, told AFP.
Afghan security forces have increasingly relied on air strikes to push the militants back from cities even as they run the risk of hitting civilians in heavily populated areas.
"The city is in the worst condition. I do not know what will happen," said Halim Karimi, a resident of Lashkar Gah, a city of 200,000 residents.
"Neither the Taliban will have mercy on us, nor will the government stop bombing."
Further west in Herat, fighting continued on the city's outskirts overnight with air strikes targeting Taliban positions, following another day of dramatic clashes between the insurgents and Afghan security forces bolstered by local militia fighters.
Herat provincial governor's spokesman Jailani Farhad said around 100 militant fighters had been killed in the attacks.
Both the Taliban and government forces tend to exaggerate their claims of casualties inflicted on the other's forces and true counts are difficult to independently verify.
On Sunday, the Ministry of Defence said that hundreds of commandos had been sent to Herat to help beat back the insurgent assault.
"These forces will increase offensive operations and suppress the Taliban in Herat," the ministry tweeted.
- Increasing pressure -
As fighting raged, President Ashraf Ghani again slammed the Taliban for failing to marshal their negotiating power to reach a peace deal.
"We want peace but they want us to surrender," Ghani said at a cabinet meeting.
The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) also took issue with the Taliban, demanding the insurgents "provide answers" for the rocket attack on its office in Herat Friday that killed an Afghan guard.
In a tweet posted on Sunday, UNAMA indicated there were also "violent occurrences at the Herat base" on Saturday, without offering further details.
For months, the Taliban's rapid territorial gains during the final stages of the US military withdrawal have largely been in sparsely populated rural areas.
But in recent weeks they have brought increasing pressure on provincial capitals and seized key border crossings.
The capture of any major urban centre would take their current offensive to another level and fuel concerns that the army is incapable of resisting the Taliban's advances.
The government has repeatedly dismissed the militants' steady gains over the summer as lacking strategic value but has largely failed to reverse their momentum on the battlefield.
The Taliban have seized Afghan cities in the past but have managed to retain them only briefly.
The insurgents overran the northern city of Kunduz in 2015 and 2016, and briefly held control of Ghazni after setting ablaze key government buildings and destroying telecommunication towers.
Top US officials and generals have acknowledged that in recent weeks the US military, despite being in its final stages of withdrawal, has carried out air strikes against the Taliban to help the Afghan forces keep the insurgents from overrunning urban areas.