Civilians fled their homes in southern Afghanistan on August 4 as government troops prepared a counterattack to retake swaths of the city of Lashkar Gah from the Taliban, as international concerns intensify over civilian casualties in several major urban centers.
With intense battles under way in the west and south, Kabul was struck by multiple attacks on defense and security power centers that killed at least eight people.
Major areas of Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand Province, are said to be under the control of the Taliban, which has reportedly besieged local government facilities and shut down government-friendly broadcasts.
The military has urged Afghans to evacuate the city, but it is unclear whether civilians can safely access routes leading out of Lashkar Gah.
In Kabul, an explosion near Afghanistan's National Directorate of Security (NDS) building early on August 4 wounded three civilians and a security official, police said.
The blast came hours after a car-bomb explosion near Kabul's diplomatic district on August 3 killed several people, including attackers.
Another blast and gun attack that apparently targeted Afghanistan's acting defense minister killed eight people, including a woman, and wounded 20 others.
An Interior Ministry spokesman said gunmen entered Minister Bismillah Khan Mohammadi's compound after the blast but that all four attackers were killed after five hours of fighting.
The Taliban has claimed responsibility for the attack, which is in a fortified part of the city that also houses other government officials.
Mohammadi on August 4 confirmed he was not in the guesthouse and his family had been safely evacuated.
Taliban fighters have captured dozens of rural districts in recent weeks in a sweeping offensive that is now focused on control over Laskar Gah and two other large cities -- Herat in the west and Kandahar in the south.
The dire situation for the civilian population caught in the cross fire was highlighted by the United Nations, which on August 3 reported that at least 40 civilians had been killed in Lashkar Gah in the previous 24 hours.
The UN Security Council's 15 members later expressed "deep concern" at the violence and condemned deliberate attacks on civilians "in the strongest terms."
They also warned against a return to Taliban rule in Afghanistan.
In a statement, the council urged the Afghan government and the Taliban “to engage meaningfully in an inclusive, Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace process in order to make urgent progress toward a political settlement and a cease-fire.”
Lashkar Gah, a city of 200,000 people, would be the Taliban's biggest urban conquest since they launched a nationwide offensive in May amid an accelerated withdrawal of U.S.-led international forces.
For the Afghan government, the loss of the city would be a huge strategic and psychological blow.
The dire situation of civilians caught in the cross fire was also compounded by reports of atrocities committed by the advancing Taliban against the civilian population as well as prisoners in several provinces.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on August 3 that Taliban forces "have summarily executed detained soldiers, police, and civilians with alleged ties to the Afghan government" in Ghazni, Kandahar, and other Afghan provinces.
“Summarily executing anyone in custody, whether a civilian or combatant, is a serious violation of the Geneva Conventions and a war crime,” said Patricia Gossman, associate HRW Asia Director.
“Taliban commanders with oversight over such atrocities are also responsible for war crimes.”
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 gains since May 1.