Besieged Afghan forces battle to flush out Taliban in key district

Kandahar (Afghanistan) (AFP) - Military planes have dropped food and ammunition to besieged Afghan forces battling to push Taliban insurgents out of Sangin, officials said Tuesday, two days after the emboldened militants stormed the opium-growing district.

Islamists have captured large swathes of the district in the southern province of Helmand which British and US forces struggled for years to defend.

Fleeing local residents reported bloody gunfights as the Taliban advanced on the district centre, highlighting a worsening security situation across Afghanistan a year after NATO formally ended its combat operations.

"We are air-dropping food supplies, military equipment and ammunition to support our forces in Sangin," defence ministry spokesman Mohammad Radmanesh told AFP.

"Sporadic fighting is going on around the district," he said, rejecting reports of high military casualties and asserting that the district had not fallen to the Taliban.

A resident who fled Sangin told AFP that insurgents had publicly executed at least three security officials after storming government buildings.

"The Taliban dragged two intelligence officials and a local police commander from their homes and shot them dead," Haji Abdul Qader told AFP.

"Only the governor's compound and the police headquarters are under government control. The rest have been overrun by the Taliban."

Qader said he fled to the Helmand provincial capital Lashkar Gah after a mortar bomb landed on his house, wounding his infant son and daughter.

His testimony bore chilling similarities to the situation in Kunduz after the Taliban briefly captured the northern city in September -- their most spectacular victory in 14 years of war.

Taliban death squads were accused of summary executions, rape and plundering Kunduz as NATO-backed Afghan forces struggled for two weeks to evict them.

Highlighting the gravity of the situation in Sangin, long seen as a hornet's nest of insurgent activity, US and British forces were recently deployed in Helmand to advise and assist Afghan forces.

This month marks a year since the NATO mission in Afghanistan transitioned into an Afghan-led operation, with allied nations helping to train local forces.

- Push to resume talks -

The unrest in Helmand comes as President Ashraf Ghani has pushed a diplomatic outreach to Pakistan -- the Taliban's historic backers -- aimed at restarting peace talks with the insurgents.

Pakistan hosted a first round of negotiations in July but the talks stalled when the Taliban belatedly confirmed the death of longtime leader Mullah Omar.

A security official in Islamabad told AFP that Pakistan army chief Raheel Sharif would travel to Kabul in the coming days, in what appears to be a renewed push to jumpstart talks.

But, said Kabul-based analyst Haroon Mir, the escalating war in Helmand suggests "the Taliban are not as willing as the Afghan government to sit on the negotiating table".

"Or they want to make more military gains and win new territory to eventually join talks in a position of strength," he said.

In a highly unusual Facebook post Sunday, Helmand's deputy governor desperately pleaded with Ghani for assistance, warning the entire province was at risk of falling to the Taliban.

All but two of Helmand's 14 districts are effectively controlled or heavily contested by Taliban insurgents, officials said.

Insurgents also recently overran Babaji, a suburb of Lashkar Gah, fuelling concern that the provincial capital could fall to the insurgents.

The fall of the province would deal another stinging blow to Afghan forces, who have struggled to rein in the ascendant insurgency without the full backing of NATO forces.

President Barack Obama in October announced that thousands of US troops would remain in Afghanistan past 2016, backpedalling on previous plans to reduce the force and acknowledging that Afghan forces are not ready to stand alone.

Sangin, a strategically important district at the centre of Afghanistan's lucrative opium trade, has been the scene of fierce fighting for years between the Taliban and NATO forces.

British troops fought deadly battles in Sangin for four years to little effect, before US marines replaced them in late 2010 and finally themselves pulled out last year.