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Taliban Close Major Highway To Southern Province

Afghan security officials take positions during a gunbattle between Taliban suicide bombers and Afghan security officials in Lashkar Gah, the provincial capital of Helmand province, May 13, 2015

LASHKAR GAH, Afghanistan -- The dusty bus station in Lashkar Gah, capital of Afghanistan’s southern Helmand Province, is teeming with people. They are desperate to get as far away as possible from the besieged city.

But by blowing up three bridges, the Taliban have closed the main asphalt road linking Lashkar Gah to Kandahar, Afghanistan’s second city nearly 130 kilometers to the east.

“This road has been closed for days,” said Noor Ahmad, a minibus driver. “We are being shot at by both the insurgents and the government soldiers, who frequently stop us and force us to haul stuff for them.”

Ghulam Nabi, a young laborer from western Afghan city of Herat, said he is stuck in Lashkar Gah. “We don’t know where to go. No one is willing take us out of here,” he said. “I don’t know how and when I can return home, and I don’t have enough money to stay in a hotel here.”

Helmand has been descending into chaos since early 2015. The Taliban are apparently focused on capturing more territory in this province, which is Afghanistan’s biggest and a center of global opium production and narcotics smuggling.

The road closure to Lashkar Gah marks a recent gain by the insurgents, who are trying to overrun the beleaguered city. This is the first time the insurgents have been successful in cutting off the highway.

Officials rejected insurgent claims last week that they had overrun Nade-e Ali and Gramser districts close to Lashkar Gah. But few are denying the fact the Taliban now control or contest a majority of Helmand’s 15 districts.

The road closure has forced some desperate civilians to attempt to use a dirt road linking Laskhar Gah to Afghanistan’s Highway 1, the major national highway.

But traveling on this road through the agricultural town of Grishik is not without risks. Rahmatullah, another driver who like many Afghans goes by one name only, said he has come under attack while using the road.

“We recently received letters from the Taliban warning us about the presence of the landmines on this road and the constant danger of attacks,” he said. “They wrote: ‘We have warned you. Now it’s your choice if you want to brave all the risks.’ ”

Rahmatullah said the drivers also face threats and abuse from government soldiers.

“They demand money and have even thrown some drivers into the river as punishment,” he says. “Lashkar Gah is now under a complete siege.”

Helmand Governor Hayatullah Hayat, however, rejects the claim that the provincial capital is under siege or the main road connecting it to the rest of the country has been cut off. He said authorities are repairing the bridges blown up by the Taliban.

But provincial lawmaker Bashir Ahmad Shakir spoke of “heightened threats” along the road between Lashkar Gah and Kandahar.

“Our people are worried about some stretches of the highway, which were recently attacked by the enemy,” he said. “But we can still use the road for supplying our troops.”

Independent observers, however, have said they worry the closure is aimed at choking supplies to the Afghan forces.

Abubakar Siddique wrote this story based on Mohammad Ilyas Dayee's reporting from Lashkar Gah, Helmand.