LASHKAR GAH, Afghanistan (Reuters) - Afghanistan’s defence minister flew to the southern province of Helmand on Wednesday a day after government forces launched a counter-offensive against Taliban insurgents who have battled their way towards the provincial capital in recent days.
The fighting in the province, where U.S. and British troops for years fought to clear Taliban from a string of poppy-growing districts, comes as Afghan government negotiators and the Taliban try to push forward power-sharing talks in Qatar.
In another blow for the embattled government, two defence force helicopters setting off for a military mission in Helmand crashed into each other early on Wednesday killing nine people on board, the Ministry of Defence said in a statement.
Acting Defence Minister Assadullah Khalid arrived in Helmand’s capital, Lashkar Gah, to assess the situation and support the forces facing the major insurgent offensive that has overshadowed the peace talks and brought U.S. air strikes.
The Taliban have seized several checkpoints and closed in on Lashkar Gah but officials said the security forces had repelled overnight Taliban attacks in the districts of Nawa and Nad Ali, with casualties on both sides.
They declined to say how many.
The Taliban assault in Helmand is testing the resolve of the government and casting doubt over the talks to end the 19 years of war since the Taliban were ousted.
The violence could also throw into question President Donald Trump’s pledge last week to bring home the remaining U.S. troops by Christmas.
Thousands of civilians have been caught up in the fighting, with more than 5,000 families displaced.
One seven-month pregnant eighteen-year-old, who declined to be identified, was shot in the stomach when caught in cross-fire in Gereshk district this week.
She lost the baby.
“I hadn’t even chosen a name for him,” she told Reuters by telephone from hospital.
“My innocent child, gone forever.”
Reporting by Zainullah Stanekzai, Abdul Qadir Sediqi and Orooj Hakimi; writing by Charlotte Greenfield; Editing by Robert Birsel
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