Afghan policemen search commuters at a checkpoint Wednesday in Helmand province. More than 800 Taliban insurgents have launched a major offensive in southern Afghanistan in an effort to gain territory recently vacated by U.S. troops, officials said, adding that 40 civilians have died in five days of fighting. (Abdul Malik / AFP)
KANDAHAR, AFGHANISTAN — Fierce fighting between Afghan security forces and Taliban fighters that has killed dozens of people has spread to three districts in a volatile southern province, officials said Wednesday.
The ongoing clashes in Helmand province come as the Islamic militant group has launched its so-called summer offensive, in which it takes advantage of warmer weather to step up attacks against the Western-backed government in a major test for President Hamid Karzai’s forces who are trying to show they can protect the people as the U.S. and its allies wind down their combat mission.
Taliban fighters began attacking police checkpoints in Helmand’s Sangin district on Sunday, forcing the government to send reinforcements to bolster the local security forces, officials said.
Afghan Defense Ministry spokesman Gen. Mohammad Zahir Azimi said Wednesday that the clashes had spread to two other districts, Kajaki and Nowzad.
At least 27 people — including five civilians, nine soldiers and 13 policemen — have been killed since the fighting began, provincial government spokesman Omar Zwak said. He said dozens of militants also had been killed, but he could not give a figure.
“Right now an operation by the Afghan security forces is underway in Sangin district,” Zwak said. “More than 1,000 families have been displaced as result of firefights in their villages and they are in need of shelter, food and water.”
Taliban spokesman Qari Yousef Ahmadi claimed responsibility for the attacks in a statement sent to the media. He said the militants had overrun several checkpoints, but the Taliban frequently issue exaggerated claims that are nearly impossible to independently confirm.
Karzai issued a statement about the fighting late Tuesday and called on the Taliban not to kill innocent civilians.
Afghan security forces were applauded last year for largely holding their own against the Taliban, but the militants have increased their campaign of violence in a bid to undermine Karzai’s government. The relentless insurgency has raised concern that the departure of most foreign forces will lead to new instability in the war-weary country. The Obama administration has agreed to leave nearly 10,000 American troops in the country beyond the end of next year, but only if a bilateral security pact is signed.
Both candidates vying to replace Karzai, who is constitutionally barred from seeking a third term, have promised to sign the agreement but allegations of massive fraud in a June 14 runoff vote have stalled the release of results.
In other violence Wednesday, a roadside bomb killed two policemen, including a district police chief, and wounded three others Wednesday in the eastern province of Ghazni, near the Pakistani border, said deputy provincial police chief Col. Asadullah Ensafi. Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid claimed responsibility for that attack.
Another bomb hidden in a wheelbarrow and detonated by remote control near a government building in the northern Faryab province killed four civilians and wounded 13 others, according to police spokesman Sayed Massoud Yaqoubi.
And a rocket apparently aimed at the Kabul international airport on Wednesday missed its target but slammed into a house, wounding four civilians, police spokesman Hashmat Stanikzai said.
Associated Press writer Rahim Faiez in Kabul contributed to this report.