LASHKARGAH -- Tens of thousands of residents of Helmand Province have fled their homes following days of heavy fighting between the Taliban and security forces, officials said Wednesday (October 14), as violence continues to soar despite peace talks.
Taliban militants launched a series of attacks on Lashkargah on Sunday (October 11) night, prompting the United States to call in air strikes to defend Afghan National Defence and Security Forces (ANDSF).
The group launched military operations in Helmand to recapture some areas taken by Afghan forces in the past few months, said Taliban spokesperson Zabiullah Mujahid in a phone interview with Shamshad TV October 14.
While admitting that Taliban insurgents were consolidating their positions in Helmand, he later appeared to backtrack on the scope of the operation in another interview the same day with Voice of America, saying that no "major offensive is currently under way" there.
The fighting triggered an exodus by local residents who crammed onto motorcycles, taxis and buses.
"More than 5,100 families or 30,000 people... have fled the fighting so far," Sayed Mohammad Ramin, director of the Helmand Department of Refugees and Repatriations, told AFP.
"Some families are still living in the open in the streets in Lashkargah; we don't have tents to give them."
Local resident Hekmatullah said he was forced to flee after a mortar shell hit his neighbour's house, killing two women.
"The fighting was so intense that I did not have time to take any extra clothes. I only took my family," said Attaullah Afghan, a farmer who fled with his family of 12.
Fighting was ongoing in at least four districts October 14, Afghan officials said, adding that ANDSF have repelled repeated Taliban assaults in the area.
Tens of Taliban fighters have been killed in ANSDF operations since fighting began, local officials told TOLONews.
Taliban must 'stop offensive actions'
Acting Defence Minister Gen. Asadullah Khalid visited Helmand October 14 to discuss the security situation and new security plans with senior local officials, the ministry tweeted.
"He praised ANDSF's achievements and dedications towards defending Helmands residents," the tweet said.
The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) called on Taliban members and Afghan forces "to take all feasible measures to protect civilians, [including] safe paths for those wishing to leave" the area.
Under a deal the Taliban signed with US negotiators in February, the insurgents are not supposed to hit urban areas and are meant to keep violence down.
An uptick in violence in recent weeks, since the Taliban and Afghan government kicked off peace talks on September 12, has slowed the peace process.
US Gen. Scott Miller, commander of the NATO-led mission in Afghanistan, warned the Taliban to "immediately stop their offensive actions in Helmand Province and reduce their violence around the country".
"It is not consistent with the US-Taliban agreement and undermines the ongoing Afghan Peace Talks," he said in a statement Monday (October 12).
Meanwhile, a collision between two Afghan military helicopters early October 14 in Nawa District, Helmand Province, killed at least nine people on board, according to Omar Zwak, a spokesperson for the provincial governor.
The Defence Ministry said it was investigating the incident.