World

Taliban fighters enter capital of northern Afghan province, lawmaker says

Taliban fighters entered the capital of northern Afghanistan's Jawzjan province Saturday, a provincial lawmaker said, after sweeping through nine of 10 districts in the province.

Sheberghan, capital of Jawzjan province, is home to key U.S. ally Rashid Dostum

Afghan men walk along a road in Zaranj, Afghanistan, on Saturday. The Taliban took control there a day earlier. (AFP/Getty Images)

Taliban fighters entered the capital of northern Afghanistan's Jawzjan province Saturday, a provincial lawmaker said, after sweeping through nine of 10 districts in the province.

The government did not deny lawmaker Mohammad Karim Jawzjani's claim that Taliban fighters had entered Sheberghan, but said the city had not fallen. If the city falls, it will be the second provincial capital in as many days to succumb to the Taliban. Several other of the country's 34 provincial capitals are threatened.

On Friday, the Taliban took control of the southwestern Nimroz provincial capital of Zaranj, where the government says it is still battling insurgents inside the capital.

Sheberghan is particularly strategic because it is the stronghold of U.S-allied Uzbek warlord Rashid Dostum, whose militias are among those resurrected to aid the Afghan National Security and Defence Forces.

Airstrikes reported, prisoners released

Heavy airstrikes were reported by residents of Sheberghan who also said the Taliban had freed prisoners from the city jail. They requested to remain anonymous fearing retaliation from both sides.

A sniper is seen keeping watch from the roof of the Afghan parliament ahead of the arrival of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani this past Monday. (Reuters)

Taliban fighters have swept through large swathes of Afghanistan with surprising speed, initially taking districts, many in remote areas. In recent weeks they have laid siege to several provincial capitals across the country as the last U.S. and NATO troops leave the country. The U.S. Central Command says the withdrawal is more than 95 per cent complete and will be finished by Aug. 31.

The U.S. Air Force continues to aid the Afghan air force's bombing of Taliban targets in southern Helmand and Kandahar provinces as Afghan security forces try to prevent a Taliban takeover.

On Saturday, the U.S. and British embassies in Kabul repeated a warning to its citizens still there to leave "immediately" as the security situation deteriorated.

U.S. Embassy calls for halt to fighting

The U.S. Embassy in Kabul also issued a statement Saturday condemning the Taliban' s military onslaught saying it was contrary to the insurgent group's claim to support a negotiated peace settlement.

Afghan honour guards hold a wreath of flowers with a portrait of Dawa Khan Menapal, the chief of the Afghan government's press operations for local and foreign media, in Kabul, Afghanistan on Saturday. The Taliban shot and killed Menapal a day earlier. (Rahmat Gul/The Associated Press)

The statement called for an immediate end to fighting and a start to "negotiations to end the suffering of the Afghan people and pave the way for an inclusive political settlement that benefits all Afghans and ensures that Afghanistan does not again serve as a safe haven for terrorists."

On Friday, Taliban fighters assassinated Dawa Khan Menapal, the chief of the Afghan government's press operations for local and foreign media. It came just days after a co-ordinated attempt was made to kill acting defence chief Bismillah Khan Mohammadi in a posh and deeply secure neighbourhood of the capital.

In a report to the UN Security Council on Friday, the UN envoy for Afghanistan urged the council to demand the Taliban immediately stop attacking cities in their offensive to take more territory.

Deborah Lyons also called on the international community to urge both sides to stop fighting and negotiate to prevent a "catastrophe" in the war-torn country.

Thousands of Afghans displaced

In Afghanistan's Helmand and Kandahar provinces in the south of the country thousands of Afghans were displaced by the fighting and living in miserable conditions.

A member of the Afghan security forces is seen taking a position during a fight with Taliban forces in Herat province, west of Kabul, earlier this week. (Hamed Sarfarazi/The Associated Press)

In Helmand's provincial capital of Lashkar Gah, Afghanistan's elite commando forces aided by regular troops were trying to dislodge the Taliban but with little success, said Nafeeza Faiez, a provincial council member. Taliban are in control of nine of the city's 10 police districts.

Faiez said conditions for residents are desperate as they hunker down inside their homes, unable to get supplies or get to hospitals for treatment. Many of the public buildings have also been badly damaged in the fighting.

"People have no access to any service," she said

More than half of Afghanistan's 421 districts and district centres are now in Taliban hands. While many are in remote regions, some are extremely strategic, giving the Taliban control of lucrative border crossings with Iran, Tajikistan and Pakistan.

The insurgent force on Friday closed one of the country's most lucrative borders with Pakistan at Spin Boldak in southeastern Afghanistan. The Taliban were protesting a demand from Pakistan that all Afghans crossing the border must have Afghan passports and Pakistani visas.

The group said Pakistan was implementing the demands of the Afghan government and demanded that previous procedures in which identities were rarely checked as people crossed the border be reinstituted.

now