Afghan forces retreat from strategic district in Helmand province

Reuters News
Posted: Aug 18, 2015 8:58 AM

LASHKAR GAH, Afghanistan (Reuters) - Afghan security forces have "tactically retreated" from a key district in the southern province of Helmand that foreign troops battled for years to secure, as the Taliban make a late summer push to expand areas they control in a traditional stronghold.

The Taliban have made a grab to secure territory in the north and south this summer, but despite some gains has struggled to hold ground, even though most foreign forces withdrew from Afghanistan in 2014.

Officials in Helmand said security forces had shifted the Naw Zad district governor's office to a safer location to avoid civilian casualties during Taliban attacks, and they retained control of the district.

"The previous compound was surrounded by civilian homes and civilians could be harmed during Taliban attacks," said Omar Zwak, a spokesman for the governor of Helmand.

A senior provincial government source said the Taliban had occupied the compound and the surrounding area.

Taliban spokesman Qari Yousuf Ahmad said the militants made "thousands of police and army forces" leave the district after heavy fighting late on Monday.

"We have control of the district," he said in statement.

Mohammad Asif, an elder from the Naw Zad area, said Afghan forces and the Taliban were still fighting on the outskirts of Naw Zad on Tuesday.

Small towns like Naw Zad in the fertile Helmand river valley saw some of the heaviest fighting by British and U.S. against the Taliban before foreign forces largely withdrew from combat missions last year.

The Taliban has a strong presence in Helmand, and controls the Baghran district next to Naw Zad. It captured Naw Zad in July, the day after news broke of the death of elusive Taliban leader Mullah Omar.

It was then retaken in August by Afghan forces, who have since come under fierce attack.

Video released by the Taliban on August 10 showed detailed footage of the July battle for the town, with government pick-up trucks and armored vehicles coming under fire.

Helicopters hover overhead and what appears to be an F-16 fighter jet roars past. After intense exchanges of fire, the militants overrun a makeshift hill base, and are shown driving in a U.S. Humvee armored truck apparently previously captured from Afghan forces.

The video ends with footage of hundreds of fighters pledging their support for the new Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour. The Taliban is trying to heal a rift with some commanders after the death of Omar, and is keen to show both its unity and operational strength.

(Reporting by Mohammad Stanekzai; Additional reporting by Mirwais Harooni; Writing by Frank Jack Daniel; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)