KABUL, Afghanistan -- The Taliban pressed ahead with their advances in southern Afghanistan on Tuesday, capturing nine out of 10 districts of the Helmand provincial capital, residents and officials said. Afghan government forces launched airstrikes, backed by the U.S., in a desperate effort to defend the city of Lashkar Gah.
The fall of Lashkar Gah would be a major turning point in the offensive the Taliban have waged over the past months as U.S. and NATO forces complete their pullout from the war-torn country. It would also be the first provincial capital captured by the Taliban in years.
Residents of the city, speaking to The Associated Press over the telephone, said the fighting has them trapped, hunkered down inside their homes and unable to step out for basic supplies. They said Taliban fighters were out openly in the streets, and that all but one Lashkar Gah district was under Taliban control.
Elite commando units were dispatched from Kabul to aid Afghan forces as the government held on to key government buildings, including the local police and army headquarters.
Majid Akhund, deputy chairman of the Helmand provincial council, confirmed that the Taliban control nine Lashkar Gah districts and also the city's TV and radio station, which had both gone off the air.
The Afghan forces commander for Helmand, Gen. Sami Sadat, in an audio message shared with journalists Tuesday urged residents in neighborhoods captured by the Taliban to evacuate immediately, though he did not clarify how they could do that amid the ongoing clashes. The message was an indication more airstrikes were planned.
“Please evacuate your families from your homes and their surroundings," Sadat said. “We will not leave the Taliban alive. ... I know it's hard ... we do it for your future. Forgive us if you get displaced for few days, please evacuate as soon as possible."
Lashkar Gah is one of three provincial capitals under siege by the Taliban as they stepped up their onslaught against government forces. In recent months the Taliban swept through dozens of districts across the country, many in remote and rural, sparsely populated areas.
Afghan troops in those battles often surrendered or pulled out with barely a fight, frequently lacking re-supplies and reinforcements. Over the past weeks, the Taliban have also captured several lucrative border crossings with Iran, Pakistan and Tajikistan.
In the Afghan capital of Kabul on Tuesday scores of people waving the Afghan flag and shouting “God is great” came out to the streets in support of Afghanistan’s National Security and Defense Forces. They came out even as a powerful explosion rattled the city. No one took immediate responsibility.
A similar procession took place in the western city of Herat on Monday after Afghan soldiers pushed the Taliban back from the entrance to the city.
The Taliban have most recently turned their guns on provincial capitals as the withdrawal of the U.S. and NATO forces is now more than 95% complete. The final U.S. and NATO soldier are expected to be out of Afghanistan by Aug. 31.
The two other provincial capitals under siege are in the neighboring province of Kandahar, also in the south, and in western Herat province.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani on Monday blamed the hasty withdrawal of U.S. and NATO troops for the deteriorating security situation, while analysts say deep corruption and poor training has left Afghan forces overwhelmed, leaving the elite commando units as the only bulwark against the advancing Taliban.
Afghanistan's air force has been seriously hurt by the American and NATO withdrawal, which included contractors who had maintained the fleet of fighter aircraft. Washington's watchdog overseeing U.S. taxpayers dollars spent in Afghanistan said the Afghan aircraft are flying 25% longer than they should before being maintained.
In Herat, the capital of the province by the same name, Afghan forces appeared on Tuesday to be able to push the Taliban back, with the insurgents on the edge of the city. Also, Herat city's civilian airport re-opened.
The United Nations has repeatedly decried the rise in civilian casualties inflicted by both sides in the increasingly brutal conflict. The U.N. mission in a tweet Tuesday appealed for a quick end to the fighting in heavily populated urban areas. In the last three days, the U.N. said 10 civilians have been killed in Lashkar Gah and 85 were wounded. In southern Kandahar, at least five civilians wee killed and 42 were wounded.
Thousands more have been displaced, sad the U.N. Lashkar Gah residents said airstrikes inside the city were also driving people from their homes.
“With any bomb that hits the city, my 13- year-old son jumps and yells,” said Mohammad Khan, a resident of Lashkar Gah. He had moved half of his family out of the city and was trying to evacuate the other half out before the fighting pinned him down.
Another Lashkar Gah resident, Nizamuddin, who like many Afghans uses only one name, said he was hiding with his family in their home and was too afraid to step out.
The U.S. and other world leaders have warned the Taliban against a military takeover of Afghanistan, saying they would become an international pariah again if they tried to take power by force.
When they last ruled Afghanistan, the Taliban were recognized by only three countries — Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Also Tuesday, the U.S. Embassy in Kabul tweeted: “The Taliban’s disregard for the dignity of each Afghan citizen and for human life more broadly has shocked the world. This is not how legitimate powers or governments behave.”
Associated Press writer Kathy Gannon in Islamabad contributed to this report