LASHKAR GAH (REUTERS) - Afghan security forces fought back a huge Taleban offensive in southern Helmand province in the last 24 hours, officials and residents said on Tuesday (May 4), as militants launched assaults around the country following a missed US deadline to withdraw troops.
Although the United States did not meet the May 1 withdrawal deadline agreed in talks with the Taleban last year, its pull-out has begun, with President Joe Biden announcing all troops will be out by Sept 11.
Critics of the decision to withdraw say the militants will try to sweep back into power.
"There was a thunderstorm of heavy weapons and blasts in the city and the sound of small arms was like someone was making popcorn," Mr Mulah Jan, a resident of a suburb of provincial capital Lashkar Gah, told Reuters.
"I took all my family members to the corner of the room, hearing the heavy blasts and bursts of gunfire as if it was happening behind our walls," he said.
Families that could afford to leave had fled, but he had been unable to go, waiting with his family in fear before the Taleban were pushed back.
Mr Attaullah Afghan, the head of Helmand's provincial council, said the Taleban had launched their huge offensive on Monday from multiple directions, attacking checkpoints around the outskirts of Lashkar Gah, taking over some of them.
Afghan security forces had launched air strikes and deployed elite commando forces to the area.
The insurgents had been pushed back, but fighting was continuing on Tuesday and hundreds of families had been displaced, he added.
A Taleban surge in Helmand would have particular resonance, as the opium-growing desert province was where US and British forces suffered the bulk of their losses during the 20-year war.
As part of the pull-out, US forces handed over a base in Helmand to Afghan troops two days ago.
The Afghan Defence Ministry said that in addition to Helmand, security forces have been responding to attacks by the Taleban in at least six other provinces, including south-eastern Ghazni and southern Kandahar in the past 24 hours.
The Defence Ministry said just over 100 Taleban fighters had been killed in Helmand.
It did not provide details on casualties among Afghan security forces. The Taleban did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The May 1 deadline for US troops to pull out was agreed on last year under former president Donald Trump.
The Taleban rejected Mr Biden's announcement that troops would stay on past it, but withdraw over the next 4½ months.
The deadline has been met with a surge in violence, with a car bomb in Logar province killing almost 30 people on Friday evening.
At least seven Afghan military personnel were killed when the Taleban set off explosives smuggled through a tunnel they had dug into an army outpost in south-western Farah province on Monday.