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Taliban battle Afghan troops to capture provincial capital


Reuters
Afghanistan
Taliban fighters with heavy weapons and night-vision equipment fought their way close to the centre of the western city of Farah on Tuesday, as Afghan government forces with US air support battled to keep control, officials and residents said.
Residents of the city, capital of Farah province on the border with Iran, have warned for months the city was vulnerable and the attack threatened a repeat of the Taliban's capture of the northern city of Kunduz, which fell briefly in 2015.
"The Taliban are moving very fast, if the government does not take serious and speedy action, the province is going to collapse to Taliban,"said Hamidullah, a resident of the city reached by telephone.
Local people said Taliban forces began their attack at around 2.00 am (2130 GMT Monday) from several directions although there were conflicting reports of how far they had got.
Mohammad Radmanish, a spokesman for the defence ministry in Kabul, said the insurgents had been pushed out of the city and reinforcements, including special forces units from neighbouring provinces, had been ordered to Farah.
The NATO-led Resolute Support mission in Kabul said US A-10 attack aircraft were also supporting Afghan forces."Farah city remains under government control, and the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces, supported by US Forces-Afghanistan airpower, are on the offensive against the Taliban,"spokesman Lt. Col. Martin O'Donnell said.
However, Humaira Ayoubi, a local member of parliament, said many parts of Farah appeared to be under Taliban control, with fighting going on around the police headquarters and the city prison.
"If reinforcements do not arrive by tonight, the province will fall to the Taliban,"she said. The attack adds to the problems facing President Ashraf Ghani's government, which has come under increasing public pressure over worsening security ahead of parliamentary elections due in October.
There were no immediate casualty assessments but residents said there were wounded and dead on both sides as well as among the civilian population.
In one incident, at least 18 soldiers were killed by a suicide bomber in the Askarabad area of the city, Farid Bakhtawar, head of a provincial council said. However, Radmanish said only two soldiers were killed in the blast.
Local officials, many of whom said the insurgents were being supported by Iran, said the attackers had come close to overrunning four police districts and had stormed the city's headquarters of the National Directorate of Security. They said fighting had also come close to the house of the provincial governor, who had left the city.
"Farah is in dire need of air support,"Dadullah Qane, a provincial council member, said by telephone as the fighting went on in the morning."The Taliban are well equipped with heavy arms and night vision equipment."
Photographs and video footage from Farah showed burning military vehicles and what appeared to be Taliban fighters moving freely but O'Donnell said the fighting was taking place about three km (1.8 miles) outside the city.
Tuesday's assault adds to the growing number of crisis points around Afghanistan since the Taliban began their annual spring offensive last month, including a series of deadly suicide attacks in the capital, Kabul.
District centres have been lost or threatened in the northern provinces of Baghlan and Badakhshan and there has been heavy fighting in Faryab in the northwest and Ghazni and Zabul, south of Kabul.
Although the insurgents have been unable to take and hold any provincial centre, they are active across Afghanistan and the government has firm control over no more than 56 percent of the country, according to US estimates.
The United States has boosted its assistance to the government under a new strategy announced by President Donald Trump last year, sending thousands of additional troops and advisers and stepping up air strikes to support Afghan forces.
The province, a remote and sparsely populated area on the border with Iran, has seen months of heavy fighting, with hundreds of police and soldiers killed and severe losses inflicted even on elite special forces units.
Farah, which also borders the opium-rich Taliban heartland of Helmand province, has key smuggling routes into Iran. Hundreds of fighters have moved there as US and Afghan forces have stepped up operations in Helmand.

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