Tens of thousands of people in southern Afghanistan have fled their homes following days of heavy fighting between the Taliban and government forces, officials said, as violence continues to soar despite ongoing peace talks.
Taliban fighters launched a series of attacks on the city of Lashkar Gah in Helmand province over the weekend, prompting the United States to call in air raids in support of the government forces.
Fighting was continuing in at least four districts on Wednesday, Afghan officials said, adding that security forces have repelled repeated Taliban assaults in the area.
The fierce battles have triggered an exodus of local residents who crammed onto motorcycles, taxis and buses.
“More than 5,100 families or 30,000 people … have fled the fighting so far,” Sayed Mohammad Ramin, director of the refugees department in Helmand, told AFP news agency.
“Some families are still living in the open in the streets in Lashkar Gah, we don’t have tents to give them.”
The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan called on Taliban fighters and security forces “to take all feasible measures to protect civilians, including safe paths for those wishing to leave” the area.
Local resident Hekmatullah said he was forced to flee after a mortar hit his neighbour’s house, killing two women.
“The fighting was so intense that I did not have time to take any extra clothes. I only took my family,” said Attaullah Afghan, a farmer who fled with his family of 12.
Medical charity Doctors Without Borders (Medecins Sans Frontieres, or MSF) said in a Twitter post on Wednesday that the main trauma hospital in Lashkar Gah “continues to be at capacity with treating injured. The MSF-supported Boost Provincial Hospital is acting as an over-flow facility”.
It added than an additional 20 people were admitted over the past 24 hours, bringing the total number of patients to 40, including pregnant women and children.
Update: The main trauma hospital in #LashkarGah continues to be at capacity with treating injured. The MSF-supported Boost Provincial Hospital is acting as an over-flow facility. Additional 20 patients admitted over 24 hrs. Total is now 40, including pregnant women and children.
— MSF Afghanistan (@MSF_Afghanistan) October 14, 2020
Separately, the UN Office of the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said in a statement on Wednesday that two health clinics in Helmand, Nawa Comprehensive Health Clinic and Bolan Basic Health Clinic, were shut down due to fighting.
“Seven other health facilities in Nad-e-Ali/Marja, Nahr-e-Saraj, Lashkargah and Nawa closed down on 14 October due to threats to health staff. Before closing, the health facilities were operating in a reduced capacity, focusing on trauma care only,” the statement said.
“The closure of the health facilities affects more than 38,000 people in the area and deprives them of access to critical health services.”
International charity Save the Children described the situation as “deeply concerning”.
“Four decades of conflict in Afghanistan has had a devastating impact on the lives of children. Their education has been heavily disrupted and many have been maimed or killed by explosive weapons or attacks on schools and hospitals. This year, children have made up a third of all civilian casualties of the violence, and that is unacceptable,” Chris Nyamandi, Save the Children’s country director in Afghanistan, said in a statement on Wednesday.
“The mental scars can be felt as deeply, too. Depression and anxiety can stay with children for many years.
US air raids
The clashes in the province comes more than a month after intra-Afghan peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government began in Qatar’s capital, Doha.
These talks became possible after the United States signed a deal with the Taliban in February, committing to a phased withdrawal of its remaining troops in Afghanistan, in exchange for Taliban security guarantees.
On Monday, US forces said they had carried out several air raids in Helmand province in support of Afghan security forces under attack by the Taliban.
Colonel Sonny Leggett, a spokesperson for the US military in Afghanistan, said Monday that the recent Taliban attacks in Helmand were “not consistent” with a US-Taliban deal signed in February and undermine the ongoing peace talks.
He said the air raids do not violate the February agreement.
Meanwhile, at least nine people – all Afghan crew and soldiers – were killed when two helicopters collided in Helmand.
The two Soviet-era Mi-17 helicopters crashed due to technical problems while taking off in Nawa district, an Afghan defence ministry statement said on Wednesday.
Omar Zhwak, a spokesman for the provincial governor, said the helicopters were carrying wounded soldiers.
In northern Afghanistan, a gun battle erupted after fighters attacked security checkpoints in Guzerga-i Noor district of Baghlan province, killing at least six security personnel and wounding two others, said Jawed Basharat, a spokesman for the provincial police chief.
He blamed the Taliban for the attack and said reinforcements were dispatched to the still-raging gun battle.
The Taliban did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the fighting in Baghlan.
In the western Herat province, at least five small children were killed and 10 civilians wounded when their vehicle was hit by a roadside bomb, said Jilani Farhad, spokesman for the provincial governor.
He said the civilians were traveling to a wedding in another village in Kush-i Kohna district when the blast struck their vehicle.
In the eastern province of Laghman, three civilians were killed and 14 more wounded by a magnetic explosive device attached to a police vehicle, said Shafiullah Afghanyar, a provincial police spokesman.
No one immediately claimed responsibility for either bombing in Herat and Laghman provinces.