Afghanistan troops start new year battling Taliban in south province

KABUL: Afghan security forces faced a tough year ahead on Monday, as the Taliban began the new year with another onslaught in Afghanistan’s embattled southern Helmand province, where fighting continued into a third day, authorities and locals said.
All civilians have fled the centre of the Helmand district targeted in the attack, according to a local tribal elder, Shamsullah Sahrayi.
The state of the fighting was unclear on Monday, with Taliban, government troops and tribal elders all giving different accounts. The Taliban claimed in a Tweet that they were attacking government offices, however, provincial spokesman Omar Zwak said that “all government facilities, including the district governor’s compound and police station are under government control.”
“Taliban have taken heavy casualties, three of their commanders have also died in the clashes,” Haji Sulaiman Shah, the district chief for the long embattled Sangin district said.  The district targeted by the Taliban onslaught has been the centre of the Helmand conflict since the Nato combat mission ended in 2014, and was also once the focus of the British fight against the insurgency.
Meanwhile, the Taliban also claimed to have reopened a road connecting Helmand’s provincial capital Lashkargar and the neighbouring Kandahar province after a week-long blockage.
The provincial government rejected this, saying it had pushed the Taliban back from the route. Together with northern Kunduz province, Helmand has been a major focus of the Taliban. Experts say they want to establish a state within the state there.
According to recent security reports they may control up to 75 per cent of Helmand’s territory, which is also home to the billion dollar illicit opium cultivation and trade industry. — dpa