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Sangin 'still under Afghan government control' after US air strikes

Published 24/12/2015

Afghan National Army soldiers guard a checkpoint on the way to the Sangin district (AP)
Afghan National Army soldiers guard a checkpoint on the way to the Sangin district (AP)

Afghan forces backed by US air strikes have pushed back a Taliban onslaught 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 increase 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 US conducted two air strikes 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 centre of Sangin district around the district governor's compound but the Afghan forces, bolstered by reinforcements, soon succeeded in driving them further out, said Akhtar Muhammad, a police commander in Sangin.

"An hour later we recaptured that building and now we have it," he said.

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 air strikes.

Just before midnight, US warplanes conducted two strikes in the vicinity of Sangin, the spokesman for the Nato mission in Afghanistan, US army colonel 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 on 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 three billion dollars 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 rumours that they have captured the district are not true," he said.

Reinforcements were rushed to the region, the acting defence 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 defence, said Javid Faisal, deputy spokesman for chief executive Abdullah Abdullah. Roads around the district centre 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, and that the provincial capital Lashkar Gah had also been targeted by the insurgents.

"Rumours about Lashkar Gah (falling to the Taliban) are totally baseless because we don't have fear of losing the districts, so there is no fear of losing the centre," Mr Abdullah said.

He said plans to push back in Sangin had been in preparation for some time, but the government had to prioritise its military assets as the Taliban had been fighting across all corners of the country since the drawdown of the international combat mission last year.

The Taliban issued a statement on Thursday laying out conditions for a peace dialogue to end the war, now in its 14th year. Talk of a dialogue between the Kabul government and the insurgents has resurfaced following a regional conference in the Pakistani capital earlier this month where hopes were raised that a process that was cancelled over the summer could be revived in 2016.

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