Taleban establish foothold in southern Afghanistan after offensive

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (AFP) - The Taleban have established a foothold in southern Afghanistan in a 10-day battle against Afghan forces, locals said on Sunday, as the army and police struggle to prove they can defeat the insurgents without Nato help.

A coordinated assault by 800 Taleban fighters on police checkpoints and military posts began on June 19, with Afghan forces rushed in to recapture parts of Sangin district in Helmand province.

Despite government claims that the Taleban have been routed in a series of counter-attacks, Mr Hashim Alkozai, a local elder, told AFP that the insurgents had successfully defended two key areas of the district.

"The government has sent more reinforcements to Sangin, but the Taliban still have two parts, Barekzai and Bostanzai, under their control," Mr Alkozai said after fleeing to Lashkar Gah, the provincial capital of Helmand.

"President Hamid Karzai has promised to send us some aid, but that is not enough, our people need food and shelter."

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 US-led Nato forces.

With the Nato combat mission winding down this year, the Taleban offensive is seen as a test of the Nato-trained Afghan government forces now responsible for quelling the insurgency.

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

"The fighting is still ongoing in some parts of Sangin, more reinforcements have been sent in to eliminate the pockets of resistance," Mr Omar Zwak, the spokesman for the Helmand governor, told AFP.

This summer's "fighting season" will be the last with US-led combat troops deployed in Afghanistan, after a 13-year war that has cost the lives of 3,500 coalition soldiers and failed to crush the Taleban.

The fighting in Helmand has come as politicians in Kabul are locked in a stalemate over the presidential election, with one candidate, Mr Abdullah Abdullah, saying he rejects the ongoing vote count due to massive fraud.

On Sunday the government claimed the Taleban had been beaten back in Sangin and 260 insurgents killed, while a Taleban spokesman said that fighting continued.

"The Taleban have planted mines in almost every part of Sangin, so no vehicles dare to drive even on the main roads," said Mr Toor Jan, who escaped the fighting by walking for two days with 10 members of his family to Lashkar Gah.

"We are now living with our relatives but this cannot continue for long. We are in severe need of any kind of assistance," he said.

The Afghan government said it had not requested any Nato help, but the coalition said it had provided limited close air support as well as intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance help.

The threat of a Taleban revival as foreign combat troops withdraw is a major fear for many Afghans, though government and Nato officials insist that the national army and police are increasingly effective.

Concern about Afghanistan's stability has also been heightened by the deepening crisis over the election to select a successor to President Hamid Karzai, who has ruled since 2001 when the Taleban regime was ousted.

Soon after the poll on June 14, Mr Abdullah accused his rival Ashraf Ghani, Mr Karzai and the election authorities of committing systematic fraud to keep him out of office.

With the preliminary result due to be announced on Wednesday, Mr Ghani is reported to be ahead in a surprise comeback after finishing well behind Mr Abdullah in the eight-man first-round election.

The United Nations and Afghan allies have been working hard to try to prevent a contested outcome, but Mr Abdullah's campaign on Sunday confirmed he was set to reject the result, fuelling tension between rival supporters.

The UN on Saturday called on candidates to "refrain from any acts that incite imminent violence, civil disorder or lead to instability".