KABUL: Afghan security forces on Saturday claimed victory against a Taliban offensive in the country’s volatile Helmand province after days of fighting seen as a test for the country’s security forces as North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)-led troops pull out.
The Taliban’s onslaught in Helmand began on June 19 when at least 800 fighters launched the offensive centered in Sangin district, a hotbed of opium production and intense fighting during the 13-year insurgency.
“The Taliban offensive has been beaten back, their plan to gain territory and capture districts have totally been foiled. Some 260 of the terrorists have been killed”, said Afghanistan’s interior ministry spokesman Sediq Sediqqi.
Sediqqi also said that 28 Afghan forces were killed in the fighting.
The Taliban’s drive into Helmand province is seen as the biggest test of Afghan security forces so far in the current summer “fighting season” and comes as the government is locked in a stalemate over the presidential election.
Government forces had started a push to retake the areas they had lost in the early days of the offensive, Seddiqi said, but their progress had been “slow” as the areas that the Taliban had been pushed out of were “heavily mined”.
“Just yesterday police defused 60 landmines in Sangin district,” Sediqqi said.
A high-ranking Afghan army corps officer in Helmand said earlier in the day that the insurgents had also been beaten back in three other districts – Kajaki, Nawzad and Musa Qala – which they had attacked at the beginning of their offensive.
A Taliban spokesman, Yousuf Ahmadi, rejected the claim made by the government, saying that fighting was still ongoing in Sangin.
“Our mujahideen have attacked several security checkpoints in Sangin district,” Ahmadi said.
The battle in Helmand comes as NATO’s combat mission winds down by the end of this year, and Afghanistan’s army and police are fighting against the Taliban with decreasing support from the United States-led military coalition.
The clashes in Helmand have also raised fears of instability as Afghan politics is stuck in a stalemate over the ongoing election vote count, with presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah alleging massive fraud by his rival Ashraf Ghani.
On Wednesday, United Nations special envoy for Afghanistan Jan Kubis warned of “rising tensions following the second round (of elections), including increasing ethnic overtones”.
A contested election result “might lead to protracted confrontation with a danger of a slide into violence”, he added.