Afghan forces battle to push back Taliban from southern city

LASHKAR GAH: Afghan government forces, bolstered by hundreds of fresh troops and elite commandos, battled on Wednesday to push the Taliban back from around the capital of the southern province of Helmand after fierce fighting a day before.

The fighting near the provincial centre of Lashkar Gah, part of a widening insurgency across the country, comes three weeks after the Taliban briefly captured the northern city of Kunduz in their biggest military success of the 14-year conflict.

Shah Mahmoud, a senior police official in Helmand, said troops backed by air support had pushed fighters from the hardline Islamist Taliban movement back by some 8 km (5 miles) from Lashkar Gah and regained a district which had been overrun.

"The operation is ongoing in the areas of Baba Ji, Nad Ali and Gereshk as of now, backed by air strikes," Mahmoud said, referring to three areas north of the city where the fighting has been most intense.

The Taliban said it had seized two districts near Baba Ji and captured a large amount of equipment and ammunition.

The fighting near Gereshk, which sits astride Highway One, the main route linking the southern city of Kandahar with the western city of Herat, underlined the threat to Afghanistan's major transport arteries from the insurgency.

With fighting flaring up in areas as widely separated as Kunduz in the north, Faryab on the border with Turkmenistan, Ghazni southwest of Kabul and Herat in the west of the country, Afghan forces have been increasingly stretched in recent weeks.

The Kabul government and international forces have struggled to exert central government control over Helmand province, one of the world's biggest centres of opium cultivation and a longstanding centre of Taliban support.

However Omar Zwak, a spokesman for the provincial governor, said reinforcements had arrived and there was no danger that Lashkar Gah would fall.

"We have sufficient forces here and Lashkar Gah will never fall to the Taliban," he said, adding that 66 Afghan insurgents and foreign militants had been killed overnight in the air strikes.