KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (AP) — A suicide car bombing killed 14 people, including 10 Afghan police officers, as the Taliban launched a large-scale attack Monday on the capital in southern Helmand province, the heartland of the insurgency.
Since the beginning of this year's fighting season, the Taliban have expanded their footprint across most of the province and have been at the gates of the city of Lashkar Gah, the provincial capital, for weeks.
According to Haji Marjan, police chief of Nad Ali district who has been deployed to the city, the explosion happened around 11.30 a.m., after the Taliban earlier targeted police checkpoints across Lashkar Gah.
Marjan said at least 10 police officers, including his brother, and four civilians died in the bombing in the Mukhtar area of police district 2. He warned the death toll was likely to rise as it was unclear how many people remain unaccounted for after the explosion.
A doctor at the city's international emergency hospital said 14 bodies were brought to the clinic. Speaking on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to speak to the media, the physician said 15 wounded were also brought in, including 14 victims of the car bombing and one person who suffered gunshot wounds.
Communications in the city appeared to have been cut as it wasn't possible to reach officials or residents for comments. In the Afghan capital of Kabul, Sediq Sediqqi, the Interior Ministry spokesman, confirmed the attack but expressed confidence security forces "will soon push them (Taliban) back."
He said security forces had responded quickly but gun battles were continuing, with at least seven insurgents killed and two vehicles packed with explosives destroyed.
"We have enough forces in Lashkar Gah, plus supportive and commando units to respond to the Taliban's attack," Sediqqi told reporters.
Helmand is strategically important for the Taliban as it's the main source of the country's opium output, worth an estimated $4 billion a year, much of which funds the insurgency. Provincial officials have said the Taliban now control 85 percent of the province, while only a year ago, the government controlled 80 percent.
Elsewhere, Afghan forces in the northern city of Kunduz city and Farah, a city in the west, were also battling Taliban attacks. Progress was slow as the insurgents were using civilians as human shields and their homes for cover, Sediqqi said.
Insurgents attacked Kunduz, the capital of the province of the same name, a week ago, a year after they overran it and held it for a few days, then battled Afghan and U.S. forces for three weeks until they were driven out.
The U.S. military has provided backing for the Afghan forces but the operations are taking care to avoid id civilian casualties, said U.S. military spokesman in Afghanistan, Brig. Gen. Charles Cleveland.
"Since Oct. 7, U.S. forces have conducted 21 air-to-ground engagements to defend friendly forces," he said, without mentioning airstrikes.
Associated Press writers Rahim Faiez and Lynne O'Donnell in Kabul, Afghanistan, contributed to this story.