LASHKAR GAH, Afghanistan -- Concerns are rising for the fate of tens of thousands of civilians caught up in battles between Afghan government forces and the Taliban in the southern province of Helmand.
More than 6,000 families have taken refuge in the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah, following several days of clashes, local officials told RFE/RL on October 15.
United Nations agencies say the heavy fighting, in which Afghan forces supported by U.S. air strikes are defending Lashkar Gah from a Taliban assault, has taken out electricity and telecommunication lines in the city, interrupted critical health services, and blocked all exit routes.
Amnesty International has called on both sides to give civilians "safe passage” in order to avoid “a humanitarian disaster.”
"The situation for civilians in Lashkar Gah is grave and could deteriorate rapidly in the coming days. Tens of thousands of people are trapped in the middle of a bloody battle that shows no sign of abating,” according to Omar Waraich, head of South Asia at the London-based human rights group.
The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) urged both sides to "take all feasible measures to protect civilians," including "safe paths for those wishing to leave."
On October 14, Doctors Without Borders (MSF) in Afghanistan reported that the main trauma hospital in Lashkar Gah “continues to be at capacity with treating injured.”
“The MSF-supported Boost Provincial Hospital is acting as an over-flow facility. Additional 20 patients admitted over 24 hrs. Total is now 40, including pregnant women and children,” the charity tweeted.
“Our patients have been injured by bomb blasts, shelling and gunshot wounds – and fractures from when they were fleeing,” wrote MSF hospital coordinator Mariana Cortesi.
Two Afghan military helicopters collided in Helmand on October 14 while evacuating wounded soldiers, killing nine people onboard, officials said.
According to the Defense Ministry, the collision was due to "technical issues.”
The battle over Lashkar Gah is the first big Taliban offensive since peace talks between government representatives and Taliban negotiators began last month in the Qatari capital, Doha.
There has been no apparent progress in the negotiations, which are meant to end Afghanistan's decades-long war, following a deal signed by the United States and the Taliban in Doha in February.
UNAMA on October 15 reiterated “the urgency to halt violence and to focus on achieving a peaceful negotiated settlement” to the war in Afghanistan, saying violence “only heaps further hardship and misery on ordinary Afghans and undermines efforts for progress and building bridges between parties at the historic Afghanistan peace talks” in Qatar.
According to the UN mission, at least 1,282 civilians were killed, and at least 2,176 others were wounded, in the first six months of the year.