Afghan official: Troops push Taliban back from southern city

KABUL: Afghan troops have pushed the Taliban back from a key southern city after the insurgents seized an area on its outskirts earlier this week, an official said Wednesday.

The area known as Babaji, 12 kilometers (7 miles) from Lashkar Gah, capital of Helmand province, is back under government control, said the Interior Ministry's spokesman, Sediq Sediqqi. He said reinforcements had arrived and a clearing operation was underway.

Residents in the city reported hearing gunfire on the outskirts, but said shops and businesses remained open.

The UN's High Commissioner for Refugees had received no "credible reports" that people were leaving the city to escape the violence, said spokesman Mans Nyberg.

Taliban gunmen had overrun several security checkpoints on the edges of Lashkar Gah on Tuesday, Sediqqi said, adding that fighting was still underway in at least three districts outside the city.

Vast quantities of opium, the raw material for most of the world's heroin, are grown in Helmand. Transport routes for the opium are vitally important to the Taliban, who receive much of their funding from the illicit crop.

The Taliban advance on Lashkar Gah came less than a month after the insurgents seized the northern city of Kunduz on September 28, holding it for three days before a government counteroffensive drove them out. Insurgents remain in some districts around the city, where they have been entrenched for much of this year.