Afghanistan’s Taliban have captured a district in the southern province of Helmand that foreign troops struggled to secure for years, in the latest setback for Afghan government forces now largely battling the militants on their own.
News of the fighting came a day after the government said elusive Taliban leader Mullah Omar had died in Pakistan around two years ago.
Officials in Helmand said the Taliban has Now Zad district on Wednesday after two days of fighting.
“Right now our security forces are still on the outskirts of the district and fighting with the Taliban,” said provincial police chief spokesman Obaidullah Obaid.
Obaid declined to comment on casualties but residents of the area, speaking to Reuters by telephone, said the bodies of members of the government security forces and Taliban were lying in the streets after the battle.
The Taliban confirmed the capture of the district centre, saying weapons and ammunition had been seized. Helmand has been a Taliban stronghold and centre of opium production for years.
British and US troops began a concerted effort to secure the province in 2006 and some of the heaviest fighting of the war took place over subsequent years in small towns like Now Zad, most of them in the fertile Helmand river valley.
More than a dozen US Marines and British troops were killed in fighting over Now Zad. Most foreign troops left Afghanistan last year.
The Taliban have also made gains in the northern provinces of Sar-e-Pol and Badakhshan in recent days.
The Afghan government is trying to get peace talks going but little progress has been made in initial meetings.