A senior Afghan military commander ordered residents of the besieged city of Lashkar Gah in southern Afghanistan to leave 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.
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.
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.
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.
Meanwhile in western 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.