The Taliban on Saturday took control of the city of Sibargan (northwest), the second provincial capital to fall into rebel hands in less than 24 hours since the start of the withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan in May.
“Unfortunately, Sibargan was captured by the Taliban,” Qader Malia, deputy governor of Jawzjan province, of which the city is the capital, told AFP.
He further stated that “(Afghan) forces and officials fled to the airport.”
On Friday (6), the Taliban seized the first provincial capital, Zaranj (southwest), capital of Nimroz province, near the border with Iran, without encountering real resistance from the Afghan forces, busy defending several provincial capitals throughout the country.
If the city of Sibergan remains under Taliban control, it will represent a new setback for the government, which has recently appealed to former warlords and various militias to try to curb the insurgents’ advance.
Jawzjan province is the stronghold of Marshal Abdul Rashid Dostom, leader of an Uzbek militia reputed for his cruelty and volatile loyalty.
An adviser to Marshal Dostom confirmed Sibargan’s downfall. “The security forces and those responsible have withdrawn to an area about 20 kilometers from the city. It was planned, they transported enough ammunition to defend themselves from an attack by the Taliban,” said the adviser.
Since May, rebels have taken control of vast rural areas and crucial border posts in a blitzkrieg launched after the announcement of the withdrawal of international forces, which is expected to be completed on 31 August.
After encountering little resistance in rural areas, for several days they directed the offensive towards major urban centers, surrounding several provincial capitals and taking control of two of them.
Given these advances, the United States, which will complete its withdrawal at the end of August, intensified its air attacks. “US forces have carried out air strikes in recent days to defend our Afghan partners,” said Commander Nicole Ferrara, spokeswoman for the Army’s Central Command.
– Worrying image –
The capture of Zaranj is of little strategic importance, but it sends a troubling image of the capitulation of Afghan forces to other cities that find themselves surrounded by insurgents.
On social media, messages released by the Taliban suggest a warm welcome from the civilian population of Zaranj, a city severely affected by crime.
The images show the Taliban waving their flags in military vehicles while being cheered by young men and boys.
It is difficult, however, to know to what extent the images convey real support for the rebels or whether civilians do so out of a desire to survive.
The Taliban, according to those responsible, released all the prisoners in Zaranj.
Another video posted on Twitter, the authenticity of which could not be verified, shows masses of people looting government offices, stealing chairs, tables and televisions.
“The Afghan security forces are demoralized by the incessant Taliban propaganda,” a Nimroz official, who asked to remain anonymous, explained to AFP.
“Even before the Taliban attacks, many lowered their weapons, took off their uniforms, left their units and fled,” he said.
From Kunduz, a city in the north surrounded by the Taliban for weeks, activist Rasikh Marof told AFP by telephone that fighting began last night in the city center, but the Taliban has yet to gain ground.
Government forces “strongly defended” the city to deny entry to the Taliban and responded with air strikes, Marof explained. He added that the rebels used “mortars and heavy weaponry”. “Many stores have closed and people are locked in their homes to protect themselves,” explained the activist.
According to Dr. Ehsanullah Fazli, head of health in Kunduz province, contacted by AFP, the city’s main hospital has received 38 civilians wounded and 11 dead since fighting resumed last night.
“Ambulances cannot move because of the fighting,” he added. The numbers can increase during the day, explained Fazli.
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