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District besieged by Taliban still under Afghan control

First Published      Last Updated Dec 24 2015 06:50 pm

Insurgency » 25 militants killed by airstrikes; U.S. adds muscle to international effort.

Kabul, Afghanistan • Afghan forces backed by U.S. airstrikes pushed back a Taliban onslaught Thursday in a strategically important district in the southern Afghan province of Helmand, officials said.

Sangin district had been besieged by the insurgents for weeks before an uptick in the ferocity of the fight this week sparked concerns it could fall to Taliban control.

But civilian and military officials said Sangin remained in government hands after the United States conducted two airstrikes overnight, and Afghan military helicopters dropped food and ammunition to soldiers and police who had been surrounded and trapped inside the district army base for days.

The presence of a small contingent of British troops, who arrived in the Shorab base — formerly Britain's Camp Bastion during their Afghan combat mission — on Wednesday had helped boost morale of both civilians and security forces, officials said.

Overnight, the Taliban captured parts of the center of Sangin district around the district governor's compound, but the Afghan forces, bolstered by reinforcements, soon succeeded in driving them farther out, said Akhtar Muhammad, a police commander in Sangin.

"An hour later we recaptured that building and now we have it," he told The Associated Press.

In recent days, the Taliban assault has threatened to overrun Sangin, a major poppy-growing area in Helmand, raising alarm that Afghan forces were too overstretched to fend off the insurgency. The Taliban this week pronounced they had seized control of the district, but the claim was widely refuted by Afghan officials.

As the military rushed more troops to the area, Afghan officials on Wednesday asked for the international military coalition's help, including airstrikes.

Just before midnight, U.S. warplanes conducted two strikes in the vicinity of Sangin, the spokesman for the NATO mission in Afghanistan, U.S. Army Col. Mike Lawhorn, said.

Afghan planes also struck Taliban strongholds in Sangin, killing 25 insurgents and wounding another 12, said the Afghan army spokesman in Helmand, Guam Rasoul Zazai.

Operations were slowed Thursday as insurgents began taking shelter in civilian homes, he said.

Sangin is an important prize for the Taliban. It sits on crucial smuggling routes for drugs, arms and other contraband which fund the insurgency. Most of the world's heroin is made from opium produced in Helmand's poppy fields. Afghanistan's opium output is worth up to $3 billion a year, much of it going to the Taliban which sponsors and polices its production and transport.

Shadi Khan, a tribal elder in Sangin who is also director of the Sangin District Council, said he was trapped in the Sangin army base for three days before government forces arrived.

"Taliban rumors that they have captured the district are not true," he said.

Reinforcements were rushed to the region, the acting Defense Minister Masoom Stanekzai told reporters on Wednesday, after the province's deputy governor, Mohammad Jan Rasulyar, used his Facebook account to plead for help from central authorities. He said the entire province was in danger of falling to the Taliban.

Air drops of food and ammunition helped boost the defense, said Javid Faisal, deputy spokesman for Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah. Roads around the district center had been mined by the insurgents, he said, adding that "at no time did Sangin fall, Sangin is not going to fall."

He conceded that many important districts in Helmand had been under prolonged Taliban attack, including Khanshin on the Pakistan border and Marjah.

Helmand-based civil society activist Sardar Mohammad Hamdard said that at least 200 civilians had been killed or wounded in Sangin in the recent fighting.

He said 12 members of the same family were killed by a roadside bomb as they were driving out of the district earlier this week, and rocket fire had landed on a house killing 17 people, including 10 children.

"It is both the government and the Taliban who are doing the killing," Hamdard said.