Hundreds of Taliban fighters have launched a days-long assault in Afghanistan to take back a former stronghold of the group, according to several media reports.
In one of the most significant coordinated assaults on the government in years, the Taliban attacked police outposts and government facilities across several districts in northern Helmand Province, sending police and military officials scrambling to shore up defenses and heralding a troubling new chapter as coalition forces prepare to depart, The New York Times reports.
The paper says the attacks have focused on the district of Sangin, historically an insurgent stronghold and one of the deadliest districts in the country for the American and British forces who fought for years to secure it.
The Washington Post reports that as of Saturday, the exact toll from the violence remained unclear, but at least several dozen civilians, soldiers and police officers have been killed. The New York Times puts the death total at more than 100 members of the Afghan forces and 50 civilians.
"I see the people running everywhere with their women and children to take shelter," Hajji Amanullah Khan, a village elder, told The New York Times. "It is like a doomsday for the people of Sangin. We do not have water, and there is a shortage of food. The price of everything has gone up because the highways and roads have been blocked for the last week."
The BBC reports that insecurity has spread in Helmand Province since British and American forces pulled out of many districts and withdrew to small outposts. Many of the roads connecting the capital, Lashkar Gah, to outlying districts have been a no-go area for government officials, and roadside bombs have prevented ground reinforcements.
"It was a coordinated and organized attack on northern Helmand," Omer Zowak, the provincial spokesman, told The Washington Post. "Afghan security forces have pushed the Taliban back ... but they are resisting in some parts of Sangin district."
Meanwhile, Muhammad Naim Baloch, the provincial governor in Helmand, says the Taliban is likely plotting more violence.
"The Taliban are planning to create problems in several northern Helmand districts to pave the way for their fighters to operate freely in the area and pose threats to Kandahar, Helmand and Farah Provinces," he told The New York Times.
According to several reports, this latest assault may have been one of the most effective Taliban efforts in Helmand.
A spokesman for the Interior Ministry, Sediq Sediqi, told The Washington Post that more than 1,000 insurgents were involved in the attack. But Afghan officials told the newspaper Saturday that fighting was nearing an end, with troops refusing to cede territory.