War in Afghanistan has entered a deadlier, more destructive phase: UN envoy
Taliban kill head of Afghan government's media department
The Taliban ambushed and killed the director of Afghanistan's government media centre on Friday in the capital Kabul, the latest killing of a government official just days after an assassination attempt on the country's acting defence minister.
The slaying comes amid Taliban advances and battles for more territory as U.S. and NATO forces complete their final pullout from Afghanistan by the end of the month. The Taliban have been waging fierce battles for months across Afghanistan, laying siege to provincial capitals in the south and west of the country after capturing district after district and even seizing several key border crossings.
Also Friday, in southern Nimroz province, the capital of Zaranj appeared to be the first provincial capital to fall to the Taliban, though the government claimed there was still fierce fighting around key infrastructure in the city. But the Taliban posted images on social media showing insurgents inside the local airport and posing for photographs at the entrance to the city.
Nimroz is sparsely populated in a region that's mainly desert. Zaranj, the provincial capital, has about 50,000 residents. The province's governor, Abdul Karim Barahawi, fled Zaranj for refuge in the peaceful Chahar Burjak district, where the local ethnic Baluch population has given him protection.
Zaranj's fall to the Taliban, if confirmed, would be a mostly symbolic victory for the insurgents.
Meanwhile, Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid told The Associated Press that the group's fighters had killed Dawa Khan Menapal, who ran the government's operations for the local and foreign media. Menapal had previously been a deputy spokesperson for Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.
In a statement Mujahid put out later, he said Menapal "was killed in a special attack of Mujahideen" and was "punished for his deeds."
Mujahid did not give any more details. The killing of government officials by the Taliban is not uncommon, and several recent attacks against civilians have been claimed by the Islamic State. The government most often holds the Taliban responsible.
The war between the Taliban and Afghanistan's government forces has intensified over the past few months as U.S. and NATO troops complete their pullout from the war-torn country.
The Taliban are now trying to seize provincial capitals after taking smaller administrative districts.
The killing of Menapal occurred as weekly Friday prayers were being held, Interior Ministry deputy spokesperson Said Hamid Rushan said.
Bombing targeted acting minister
Late Tuesday, a Taliban bombing attack targeting Afghanistan's acting defence minister killed at least eight people and wounded 20 in a heavily guarded upscale neighborhood of Kabul. The deputy minister was unharmed.
The blast was followed by a gun battle that also left four Taliban fighters dead. The Taliban said it was to avenge its fighters killed during government offensives in rural provinces.
Meanwhile, Afghan and U.S. aircraft pounded Taliban positions in southern Afghanistan's Helmand province on Friday, as the insurgent force closed a major border crossing with neighbouring Pakistan.
Residents in Helmand's contested provincial capital, Lashkar Gah, said airstrikes destroyed a market in the centre of the city — an area controlled by the Taliban. Afghan officials say the Taliban now control nine out of 10 police districts in the city.
Afghanistan's elite commandos have deployed to Lashkar Gah, backed up by airstrikes by the Afghan and U.S. air forces.
The Taliban began sweeping through territory at an unexpected speed after the U.S. and NATO began their final withdrawal from Afghanistan in late April.
The bitter fighting has displaced hundreds of thousands of Afghans, now living in miserable conditions in improvised shelters and makeshift camps in the southern, desert-like environment — enduring brutally hot days and cold nights. Inside the cities where fighting is underway, thousands are trapped and unable to move from their homes.
In the southern city of Kandahar, the capital of the province with the same name, hundreds are sheltering in makeshift camps, wondering where they will get food for their children.
In the Helmand capital of Lashkar Gah, the shuttered office of Action Against Hunger, a global humanitarian organization, was hit in an airstrike on Thursday, the group said in a statement. Fighting had forced the organization to close its office last week.
More than half of Afghanistan's 421 districts and district centres are now in Taliban hands.
While many of the districts are in remote regions, some are deeply strategic, giving the Taliban control of lucrative border crossings with Iran, Tajikistan and Pakistan.
Speaking to a special meeting of the United Nations Security Council virtually from Kabul on Friday, Deborah Lyons, the UN envoy to Afghanistan, said the human toll of the worsening fighting was deeply disturbing.
"The war in Afghanistan has entered a new, deadlier, and more destructive phase," she said. "The provincial capitals of Kandahar, Herat and Lashkar Gah in particular have come under significant pressure. This is a clear attempt by the Taliban to seize urban centres with the force of arms."
"The human toll of this strategy is extremely distressing — and the political message is even more deeply disturbing," she said. In just 10 days in Lashkar Gah, 104 civilians were killed. Lyons appealed to the council to send a strong signal "that it is essential to stop fighting and negotiate, in that order."
"Otherwise, there may be nothing left to win," she said.
In southeastern Afghanistan, the Taliban last month took control of the border town of Spin Boldak, opposite Pakistan. The crossing is one of Afghanistan's busiest and most valuable. Thousands of Afghans and Pakistanis cross daily and a steady stream of trucks passes through, bringing goods to land-locked Afghanistan from the Pakistani Arabian port city of Karachi.
The Taliban shuttered the crossing on Friday over a visa dispute, claiming Pakistan was abiding by Kabul government requirements for Afghans travelling into Pakistan to have a passport and a Pakistan visa. Previously, travel documents were rarely demanded and Afghans with local ID card could cross into Pakistan.
"The border will stay closed until Pakistan allows all Afghans to cross on the bases of our old procedure," said the Taliban in a statement.
At the border, traders said about 1,500 people were waiting on both sides Friday to pass through. More than 600 trucks, many loaded with perishable fresh foods, were backed up in both countries.
Islamabad's relationship with Kabul has been deeply troubled with both sides accusing each other of harbouring militants. Afghan Taliban leaders live in Pakistan and Kabul is bitterly critical of Pakistan for aiding them and treating their fighters in hospitals in Pakistan.
Islamabad, meanwhile, charges that Kabul provides a safe haven to the Pakistani Taliban, a separate militant group that regularly stages attacks in Pakistan.