By Ismail Sameem
KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (Reuters) - Mobile phones have fallen silent in Afghanistan's southern Helmand province on the orders of the Taliban, telecoms engineers said, a potent reminder of insurgent power in an area chosen as the showcase for a transition to Afghan security.
There has been no service for five days on any network in restive Helmand, where Afghan police and army are slated to take control of the capital, Lashkar Gah, from foreign forces in July, as the first step toward a full handover.
Across Afghanistan, insurgents have destroyed network towers of companies that refuse to shut them down when ordered, arguing foreign forces use the signals to monitor militants.
Night-time blackouts have become a fact of life for Afghans in more insecure areas, but a total stoppage is unprecedented.
"The Taliban threaten us to shut down the network and call us a spy station, on the other hand the government harasses our workers when we listen to the insurgents," said engineer Ahmad Shah, head of mobile phone firm AWCC in the south.
"We are in a situation to listen to the Taliban rather than the government because there is no protection."
The Taliban have already destroyed two of AWCC's network towers in Gereshk district, causing losses running into hundreds of thousands of dollars, Shah added.
Mobile phones are vital to communication in a country where most infrastructure has been destroyed or damaged in over 30 years of conflict. There are virtually no land lines in much of the country, so stopping mobile signals hits communication hard.
Taliban spokesman Qari Yousuf Ahmadi confirmed the shutdown, saying it was to prevent night raids by foreign troops and would benefit the people of Helmand.
"The leadership has decided to ban all telephone networks and this move is better for all residents of Helmand," he told Reuters by telephone from an undisclosed location.
"Their spies provide information by cell phones which lead to civilian deaths," he added. He said only the Taliban leadership could decide to lift the ban. Helmand officials could not be reached for comment on the blackout because their contact numbers are all mobile phones. NATO-led forces said they had no official reports of an outage.
The blackout is stirring resentment among ordinary Afghans toward both the Taliban and the government for not acting.
Mohammad Jan, a Helmand resident who has a shop in Kandahar city where Reuters spoke to him, said he worried about his family because he could no longer get in touch with them.
"How can we rely on foreign troops or our government for protection?" he said.
"They are totally useless and the Taliban are very cruel too by enforcing this ban on the mobile network."
(Additional reporting by Hamid Shalizi in Kabul, writing by Emma Graham-Harrison, Editing by Sugita Katyal)