A top Afghan military commander has ordered residents to leave the besieged city of Lashkar Gah in southern Afghanistan as the army prepared a major offensive to flush out Taliban fighters after three days of heavy fighting.
The Taliban have seized control of much of rural Afghanistan since foreign forces began the last stage of their withdrawal in May, but are now focused on capturing provincial capitals, where they are meeting stiffer resistance.
Fighting is raging for Lashkar Gah, the capital of southern Helmand province, with the United Nations saying at least 40 civilians were killed in the last 24 hours.
General Sami Sadat, commander of the 215 Maiwand Afghan Army Corps, told residents on Tuesday to get out as soon as they could.
“Please leave as soon as possible so that we can start our operation,” he said in a message to the city of 200,000 delivered via the media.
“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. We are fighting the Taliban wherever they are. We will fight them … we will not leave a single Taliban alive,” he said.
Al Jazeera’s James Bay, reporting from Kabul, said it was a “very dramatic” move that came after one of the fiercest days of fighting for the city.
“It’s something they have decided to do, even though potentially they are letting people leave their homes and walk into an area which is a front-line war zone where there have been so many clashes going on in recent days.”
“It also potentially means there will be lots of people displaced from their homes – where are these thousands of people going to go?”
Al Jazeera’s Charlotte Bellis, also reporting from Kabul, said the army’s decision was “unprecedented”.
“The Afghan army strategy of sending in special forces and air strikes do put civilians in harm’s way because it means they have to do fighting street-to-street and with bombs from the air in densely populated areas,” she said.
“This might be why they are saying, ‘we have to try something else because we are not making much of an impact and we putting our people in harm’s way,'” Bellis said.
“The Taliban put out videos today looking calm in the streets, walking around and showing off,” Bellis added.
Officials said earlier that Taliban fighters had seized more than a dozen local radio and TV stations in Lashkar Gah, leaving only one pro-Taliban channel broadcasting Islamic programming.
“Fighting was intense this morning,” Sefatullah, director of Sukon radio in the city, told the AFP news agency.
He said US and Afghan air force planes had pounded Taliban positions, and that fighting was continuing near the city’s prison and a building housing the headquarters of police and intelligence agencies.
The United Nations called for an “immediate end to fighting in urban areas”.
“Deepening concern for Afghan civilians … as fighting worsens,” the UN Assistance Mission for Afghanistan (UNAMA) tweeted.
Deepening concern for Afghan civilians in #Lashkagah as fighting worsens. Latest reports show 118 civilians injured & 40 killed within last 24 hours as Taliban continue ground assault & Afghan Army attempts to repel. UN urges immediate end to fighting in urban areas. #Afghanistan https://t.co/7XNlBYJSzo
— UNAMA News (@UNAMAnews) August 3, 2021
In recent days, the US military has intensified air raids across the country in a bid to stem Taliban advances.
“The Taliban are everywhere in the city, you can see them on motorcycles in the streets. They are arresting or shooting people who have smartphones,” a resident of Lashkar Gah told AFP on condition of anonymity.
“The Taliban are in the people’s houses and the government is bombing them. About 20 houses in my neighbourhood have been bombed, they are fighting street-to-street battles,” he added.
The loss of Lashkar Gah would be a massive strategic and psychological blow for the government, which has pledged to defend cities at all costs after losing much of the rural countryside to the Taliban in recent months.
In the western city of Herat, also under siege, hundreds of residents chanted “God is greatest” from their rooftops on Monday night after government forces countered the latest Taliban assault.
Officials said government forces had managed to push back the Taliban from several parts of Herat – including near the airport, which is vital for resupply.
Meanwhile, a powerful explosion rocked an upscale neighbourhood of the Afghan capital on Tuesday that is home to several senior government officials, including the defence minister.
There were no immediate reports of casualties but several smaller explosions could also be heard as well as small arms fire.
Interior Ministry Mirwais Stanikzai said the explosion happened in the posh Sherpur neighborhood, which is in a deeply secure section of the capital known as the green zone.
Younus Qanooni, a close aide to the defence minister, told reporters: “The minister was with me in a prayer ceremony. He is fine.”
On Monday, Washington and London accused the Taliban of committing atrocities that may amount to “war crimes” in the town of Spin Boldak, which the group captured last month along the border with Pakistan.
Afghanistan’s Independent Human Rights Commission earlier said the Taliban had indulged in revenge killings of at least 40 people.
“The Taliban chased and identified past and present government officials and killed these people who had no combat role in the conflict,” the group said.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that the international recognition the Taliban want will not be possible if they seek “to take the country by force and commits the kind of atrocities that have been reported”.
Fighting across the country has displaced approximately 80,000 children from the start of June, the humanitarian organisation Save the Children said on Tuesday, adding that many schools and health facilities had also been damaged.
Eileen McCarthy, advocacy manager at the Norwegian Refugee Council, told Al Jazeera the surge in violence was making the country’s already precarious humanitarian situation worse.
“We are seeing record-setting civilian casualties as well as large-scale civilian displacement. We have seen more than 350,000 Afghans newly displaced by conflict since the beginning of the year. That makes for a massive humanitarian need,” McCarthy said.
“More than half the population was already in need of assistance before this latest upsurge in the conflict,” she added.