Residents of a besieged Afghan city were urged to evacuate on Tuesday as the army prepared a major offensive against Taliban insurgents after three days of heavy fighting.
The Taliban have seized control of much of rural Afghanistan since foreign forces began the last stage of their withdrawal in early May, but are now focused on capturing provincial capitals, where they are meeting stiffer resistance.
Fighting is raging for Lashkar Gah, the capital of southern Helmand province, with the United Nations saying at least 40 civilians had been killed in the last 24 hours.
General Sami Sadat, commander of the 215 Maiwand Afghan Army Corps, told residents to get out as soon as they could. He added that, please leave as soon as possible so that we can start our operation, can be started. he said in a message to the city of 200,000 delivered via the media.
Officials said earlier that insurgents had seized more than a dozen local radio and TV stations in the city, leaving only one pro-Taliban channel broadcasting Islamic programming.
Deepening concern for Afghan civilians, as fighting worsens, the United Nations Assistance Mission for Afghanistan (UNAMA) tweeted, that UN urges immediate end to fighting in urban areas.
In recent days, the US military has intensified air strikes across the country in a bid to stem Taliban advances.
The loss of Lashkar Gah would be a massive strategic and psychological blow for the government, which has pledged to defend cities at all costs after losing much of the rural countryside to the Taliban over the summer.
Afghan officials said government forces had managed to push back the insurgents from several areas of that city — including near the airport, which is vital for resupplies.
Afghanistan’s Independent Human Rights Commission earlier said the insurgents had indulged in revenge killings there, leaving at least 40 people dead.
Top US diplomat Antony Blinken also slammed the Taliban leaders.