Fighting raged on the streets of a major Afghan provincial capital on August 3 as the United Nations warned of the "catastrophic" impact on civilians caught up in the intensifying conflict between the Taliban and Afghan army.
The Taliban has captured many rural districts in recent weeks in a sweeping offensive that is now focused on control over the three large cities of Herat, Lashkar Gah, and Kandahar.
Heavy street-to-street fighting was reported in Lashkar Gah, the capital of southern Helmand Province, where the Taliban has the city's prison and buildings housing the headquarters of police and intelligence agencies under siege.
Officials said Taliban fighters had seized local radio and television stations in Lashkar Gah, leaving a single, pro-Taliban channel actively broadcasting there.
The Afghan Army called on trapped residents to leave the city of 200,000 people so that the government could stage a counterattack.
"Please leave as soon as possible so that we can start our operation," General Sami Sadat, commander of the 215 Maiwand Afghan Army Corps, told residents in a message, suggesting government operations against Taliban are about to intensify.
"I know it is very difficult for you to leave your houses -- it is hard for us, too -- but if you are displaced for a few days, please forgive us,” he said.
The UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) expressed "deepening concern" and said at least 40 civilians had been killed in the past 24 hours of violence in Lashkar Gah. The UN said both the Taliban and Afghan Army were causing harm to civilians.
The medical charity Doctors Without Borders told RFE/RL’s Radio Azadi via WhatsApp that heavy fighting in the city is “catching people in the cross fire.”
“There are air strikes, mortars, machine gun fire, bullets in the air -- all happening within densely populated areas, catching people in the cross fire, making it too dangerous for them to leave their homes,” the charity’s spokesman, Tom Casey, said.
The loss of Lashkar Gah would be a severe blow for the government, which has vowed to defend cities after losing much of the rural countryside to the Taliban over the summer. It would also be the first provincial capital captured by the Taliban in years.
Meanwhile, a car bomb blast rocked central Kabul near the residence of Afghanistan's acting defense minister and other senior government officials. Armed assailants then stormed homes in the upscale Sherpur neighborhood.
Interior Ministry spokesman Mirwais Stanekzai said it appeared the guesthouse of acting Defense Minister Bismillah Khan Mohammadi was one target of the attack.
Details of the attack were unclear, but Stanekzai said that gunmen had entered the area after the explosion. Stanekzai said three attackers were killed by security forces and cleanup operations were still under way.
In the western city of Herat, where fighting on the outskirts has been ongoing for almost a week, residents overnight shouted "Allah-u Akbar" (God is the greatest) to boost the morale of the army and pro-government militia fending off the Taliban.
In the south, fighting also continued in Kandahar. A source in Kandahar's health department said 28 deaths and nearly 200 injuries had been registered in the past 10 days.
The fighting comes as the Taliban faces accusations of targeting noncombatants and fresh condemnation of an attack last week against a UN compound in Herat.
The United States and United Kingdom on August 2 suggested the Taliban may have committed “war crimes” and accused that group of “massacring” civilians when it captured the southern border town of Spin Boldak, in Kandahar Province, in July.
In a joint statement, 15 countries including the United States and EU member states on August 3 condemned what they called a "deplorable attack” on the UN compound in Herat that resulted in one death.
"The Taliban must stop denying their involvement in human rights violations and follow the rule of law to investigate and prosecute those responsible in their ranks," the joint statement said.
U.S.-led international combat troops are on an accelerated timeline to complete their withdrawal by the end of this month despite a stalemate in intra-Afghan peace talks and the Taliban's capture of dozens of districts since May 1.
The U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, told Radio Azadi in an exclusive interview that all parties to the fighting should prioritize national interests and return to peace talks to avoid plunging the country more deeply into war.
"The peace talks that began after the [so-called Qatar agreement in February 2020] have not progressed much and the two sides are focusing more on a military solution," Khalilzad said. "It's time for the leaders to take the talks more seriously instead of thinking they can resolve the issue through war...and to prioritize more quickly reaching an agreement."
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani blamed the current situation on what he said was an "abrupt" U.S. decision to withdraw its forces, a move that followed a pledge in a U.S.-Taliban agreement last year.
But Ghani said his government had a plan to bring conditions under control within six months and that the United States supported the scheme.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with Ghani on August 3.
“The secretary and President Ghani emphasized the need to accelerate peace negotiations and achieve a political settlement,” the State Department said. “Both leaders condemned the ongoing Taliban attacks, which show little regard for human life and human rights, and deplored the loss of innocent Afghan lives and displacement of the civilian population.”