Afghan forces fighting to retake Pakistan border crossing

Paramedics treat men injured in Chaman, a Pakistani town in the border with Afghanistan, on July 16, 2021. PHOTO: AFP

KANDAHAR (AFP) - Afghan forces clashed Friday (July 16) with Taleban fighters in Spin Boldak after launching an operation to retake the key border crossing with Pakistan, as regional capitals stepped up efforts to get the warring sides talking.

Dozens of wounded Taleban fighters were being treated at a Pakistan hospital near the border after fierce overnight fighting, AFP correspondents at the scene reported.

"We have suffered one death and dozens of our fighters have got injured," Mullah Muhammad Hassan, who identified himself as a Taleban insurgent, told AFP near Chaman in Pakistan, about 5km from the border.

The fight for the border comes as a war of words heated up between the Kabul government and Islamabad after the Afghan Vice-President accused the Pakistani military of providing "close air support to Taleban in certain areas".

Pakistan strongly denied the claim, with a foreign ministry statement saying the country "took necessary measures within its territory to safeguard our own troops and population".

"We acknowledge Afghan government's right to undertake actions on its sovereign territory," it added.

Residents of Spin Boldak, which fell to the Taleban on Wednesday, said the Taleban and army were battling in the main bazaar of the border town.

"There is heavy fighting," said Mohammad Zahir.

The border crossing provides direct access to Pakistan's Balochistan province, where the Taleban's top leadership has been based for decades, along with an unknown number of reserve fighters who regularly enter Afghanistan to help bolster their ranks.

As fighting continued, Pakistan said Thursday it would hold a special conference on Afghanistan in Islamabad at the weekend, although Taleban officials had not been invited.

There were signs too that official talks in Doha - which have stalled for months - could stutter back to life.

An aide to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani told local media his government had asked for the Islamabad conference to be postponed as negotiators were already heading to Qatar.

The Taleban have capitalised on the last stages of the withdrawal of foreign troops to launch a series of lightning offensives across the country, capturing a swath of districts and border crossings, and encircling provincial capitals.

Foreign troops have been in Afghanistan for nearly two decades following the US-led invasion launched in the aftermath of the Sept 11 attacks.

They have appeared largely out of the picture in recent months, but fears are growing that government forces will be overwhelmed without the vital air support they provide.

The speed and scale of the Taleban onslaught has caught many by surprise, with analysts saying it appears aimed at forcing the government to sue for peace on the insurgents' terms or suffer complete military defeat.

An Afghan official said Thursday a local ceasefire with Taleban leaders had been negotiated for Qala-i-Naw the Badghis provincial capital that saw fierce street fighting last week.

"The ceasefire was brokered by tribal elders," Badghis governor Hesamuddin Shams told AFP.

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