KANDAHAR • Afghan forces battled the Taleban for control of a key provincial capital, as the United Nations warned that "indiscriminate" gunfire and air strikes were hurting civilians the most.
Officials said insurgents had seized over a dozen local radio and TV stations in Lashkar Gah - capital of Helmand province and the scene of days of fierce fighting - leaving only one pro-Taleban channel broadcasting Islamic programming.
In Herat, another city under siege, hundreds of residents chanted "Allahu akbar" (God is greatest) from their rooftops after government forces repulsed the latest Taleban assault.
The hardline Islamist group has seized control of much of rural Afghanistan since foreign forces began the last stage of their withdrawal in early May, but its fighters are meeting resistance as they try to take provincial capitals.
That urban fighting, however, is taking its toll on civilians.
"Taleban ground offensive & ANA air strikes causing most harm," the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (Unama) tweeted yesterday, referring to the Afghan national army.
"Deep concerns about indiscriminate shooting & damage to/occupation of health facilities & civilian homes."
Unama said at least 40 civilians were killed and more than 100 wounded in Lashkar Gah in the last 24 hours of fighting.
"Fighting was intense this morning," said Mr Sefatullah, director of Sukon radio in the city.
"The US B-52 and Afghan air force both pounded the Taleban positions," he said, adding that fighting was ongoing near the city's prison and a building housing the headquarters of police and intelligence agencies.
On Monday, the Ministry of Defence said the United States carried out air strikes in Lashkar Gah.
In recent days, the US military has intensified air strikes across the country in a bid to stem Taleban advances.
Mr Sefatullah said his radio station "stopped broadcasting two days ago because the Taleban captured the building of our station".
Afghan officials said 10 other radio and four TV stations in Helmand had been seized by the Taleban, mostly in the provincial capital.
"Terrorists do not want the media to publish the facts and expose their injustices," the Ministry of Information and Culture said.
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 Taleban over the summer.
In Herat, Afghan officials said government forces had managed to push back the insurgents from several areas of the city - including near the airport, which is vital for resupply operations.
Washington and London lashed out at the Taleban, accusing it of committing atrocities that may amount to "war crimes" in the town of Spin Boldak, which the insurgents captured last month along the border with Pakistan.
Afghanistan's Independent Human Rights Commission earlier said the insurgents had indulged in revenge killings there, leaving at least 40 people dead.
"The Taleban chased and identified past and present government officials and killed these people who had no combat role in the conflict," the group said.
Fighting in the country has displaced about 80,000 children from the start of June, humanitarian organisation Save the Children said yesterday, adding that many schools and health facilities were damaged.