Taliban militants launched a surprise attack on a key southern Afghan town, sparking a battle that killed some 60 insurgents, an Afghan official said on Sunday. A second clash in the same region killed another 40 militants.
Taliban fighters used rockets and other heavy weapons to attack Afghan forces on the outskirts of Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province, said Daud Ahmadi, the spokesman for Helmand’s governor.
Militants attacked the city from three sides starting just after midnight and were pushed back only after a battle that involved airstrikes, Ahmadi said. Rockets landed in different parts of the city but there were no civilian casualties, he said.
NATO said its aircraft bombed insurgents after they observed them gathering for a major attack, killing “multiple enemy forces,” the military alliance said in a statement.
“If the insurgents planned a spectacular attack prior to the winter, this was a spectacular failure,” said Brig. Gen. Richard Blanchette, the spokesman for the NATO-led force.
Authorities recovered the bodies of 41 Taliban fighters on the city’s outskirts, from where the attack was launched, he said. He estimated the bodies of another 20 fighters were taken from the battle site by the militants, citing intelligence reports.
British forces are responsible for protecting the area around Lashkar Gah.
In a second battle in Helmand province, Afghan and international troops retook the Nad Ali district center — which had been held by militants — during a three-day fight, Ahmadi said. That battle, which also involved airstrikes, ended on Saturday, Ahmadi said.
Afghan police and soldiers were now in control of the district center. There were no casualties among Afghan or NATO troops, Ahmadi said.
Ahmadi’s death tolls could not be verified independently. Journalists are not able to travel to remote and dangerous battle sites. Afghan officials have been known to exaggerate death tolls in the past.
The NATO-led force said it was aware of fighting in Helmand but could not provide any information.
Helmand province is the largest drug producing area in the world and the region alone accounts for more than half of Afghanistan’s production of opium poppies.
More than 90 per cent of the world’s opium is produced in Afghanistan and up to $100 million of the trade’s profits are used to finance the Taliban insurgency.
Insurgency related violence has killed more than 4,700 people — mostly militants — this year, according to an Associated Press count of figures from Western and Afghan officials.
A roadside bomb, meanwhile, struck a civilian vehicle traveling in the Shamulzai district of Zabul province on Sunday, killing five people, said Ghulab Shah Alikheil, a provincial official. Alikheil blamed Taliban militants for planting the bomb.