Airstrikes pummel Taliban positions in southern Afghanistan

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) - U.S. and Afghan air strikes struck Taliban targets overnight in southern Helmand province to evict insurgents after capturing much of the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah, officials said Wednesday.
The United Nations and Human Rights Watch urged both sides to be careful to prevent civilian casualties as the fighting continued. The Taliban have made a violent push in recent months as US and NATO forces complete their withdrawal from the war-torn country. They have taken large tracts of land and are now aiming their weapons at larger urban centers.
Ghulam Wali Afghan, a Helmand lawmaker, told The Associated Press that his relatives and constituents in Lashkar Gah had told him about dead bodies on the streets and residents hiding in their homes and being too afraid to venture out To collect dead.
After a night of heavy air strikes, the Ministry of Defense announced on Wednesday that the Taliban had suffered heavy losses in Lashkar Gah, although there was no immediate way to confirm this statement. Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid denied the losses.
The authorities did not say whether Afghan troops had recaptured territory. On Tuesday, residents and officials said the Taliban control nine out of ten districts in the city.
The fall of Lashkar Gah would be a major turning point in the Taliban's offensive and it would also be the first provincial capital in several years to be captured by the insurgents. This week's fighting has kept Lashkar Gah residents captive and crouched in their homes.
On Wednesday, provincial hospital chief Sher Ali Shakir urged people to stay in their homes, saying at least seven civilians had been killed and 101 injured in the past 24 hours. Most injuries are gunshot wounds, he said.
Late Tuesday air strikes and ongoing street battles in Lashkar Gah destroyed several homes and markets. Helmand provincial council chairman Attaullah Afghan accused both sides of ignoring civilian safety.
Early Tuesday, the commander of the Afghan armed forces for Helmand, General Sami Sadat, dramatically called on the population to evacuate the areas conquered by the Taliban.
"We will not let the Taliban live," said Sadat. “I know it's hard ... we do it for your future. Forgive us if you are evacuated for a few days, please evacuate as soon as possible. "
Lashkar Gah is one of three provincial capitals besieged by the Taliban when they stepped up their attack on government forces. The urban push came after the Taliban captured dozens of districts across the country, many in remote and rural, sparsely populated areas. In addition to Lashkar Gah, the provincial capitals of Herat in the western province of Herat and Kandahar in the southern province of Kandahar were also attacked by the Taliban.
Save the Children's country director for Afghanistan said the aid group was "devastated by reports that 18 civilians, including women and children, were killed in air strikes on Kandahar city."
Christopher Nyamandi said, citing local media reports, "Some 49,000 people have been displaced since the outbreak of violence yesterday, including an estimated 29,400 children." He said that Save the Children is helping displaced families.
The government did not confirm the report of 18 civilians killed.
In Herat, Afghan troops pushed the Taliban out of the city, but urgently needed supplies, said Omar Nasir Mujadidi. He said on Wednesday that pro-government militias led by US-allied warlord Ismail Khan are supporting the Afghan security forces but needing additional weapons. He said the government had promised Khan's supporters an additional 2,000 weapons.
In the fighting in Herat last week, 34 people were killed and more than 150 injured, said doctor Mohammad Aref Jalali, head of the provincial hospital in Herat.

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