LASHKAR GAH: The Taliban seized a district headquarters in Afghanistan’s Helmand province on Monday despite U.S. air strikes to repel them, and two NATO soldiers were shot dead by uniformed men on an army base in the area, a stronghold for militants and opium.
The district of Musa Qala fell after the Taliban over-ran police and army posts in an offensive that lasted several days. Three U.S. air strikes on Saturday killed up to 40 militants, but they regrouped and chased government officials out of town.
Elsewhere in Helmand, two men in military uniforms opened fire in the former British base of Camp Bastion, killing two NATO soldiers.
In the first summer fighting season since foreign troops formally stepped back from combat roles in the Afghan war, the Taliban have pushed into a number of districts but have struggled to hold them when the Afghan army counter-attacks.
Musa Qala and neighboring Nawzad, which recently fell to the Taliban, saw some of the most lethal battles between Taliban insurgents and British and U.S. forces following toppling of the hardline Islamists’ five-year rule in 2001.
Nearly 14 years later, the Taliban is still fighting a guerilla war aimed at returning to power.
“We left the district early in the morning because the Taliban were attacking from all sides,” district governor Mohammad Sharif told Reuters by telephone.
“We had asked for reinforcements for days but none arrived and this was what happened,” he said.
Strong through much of Helmand province, which is the largest producer of Afghanistan’s lucrative opium crop, the Taliban killed more than 400 British soldiers, who led the counterinsurgency there until pulling out last year.
Violence has increased sharply across Afghanistan since foreign forces mostly withdrew in December, leaving a small contingent of about 12,000 NATO troops to train Afghan forces.
The U.S.-led Resolute Support mission issued a statement confirming that two of its soldiers were killed in Helmand.
“Two Resolute Support service members died early this morning, when two individuals wearing Afghan National Defence and Security Forces uniforms opened fire on their vehicle,” the alliance said in a statement. The attackers were shot dead.
It was the second incident this year involving Afghan troops, or people wearing Afghan uniforms, shooting at foreign soldiers. No group has claimed the attack.
The statement did not give further information on the exact location of the incident and nationalities of those killed, but most foreign forces operating in Helmand now are American.
A regional official said the incident involved two apparent Afghan special forces firing on their allies at the former Camp Bastion, a major base handed over to Afghan forces last year.