The Taliban has captured its first provincial capital since launching an offensive that coincided with the final withdrawal of foreign troops from the war-torn country.
The town of Zaranj, the capital of the remote southwestern province of Nimroz, was captured by Taliban militants on August 6, local officials and a member of the provincial council told RFE/RL's Radio Azadi.
Several local officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the town of around 31,000 people fell without a fight.
Other local administrators said fighting between government forces and Taliban militants was still raging in parts of the commercial and trading hub located on the border with Iran.
Local officials described panic among terrified residents that left many families scrambling to cross the border into Iran.
"Residents of the city spent the night in fear and panic, and this morning 40 percent of Zaranj's residents crossed the border into Iran via the Pul-e Abrisham, [an Iranian-built bridge] which borders the Islamic Republic of Iran," said a Nimroz provincial administration official who did not want to be identified.
The fall of Zaranj is another blow to the government in Kabul as it struggles to fend off a relentless Taliban offensive. The insurgency in recent weeks has captured dozens of rural districts, taken control of border crossings, and brought fighting into several major cities including Herat, in western Afghanistan, and Kandahar and Lashkar Gah in the south.
In yet another sign that the Taliban is capable of hitting the heart of the government, the group on August 6 claimed the killing of Dawa Khan Menapal, the head of the government’s Information and Media Center, in Kabul.
Taliban commanders have vowed to target government officials in retaliation for Afghan and U.S. air strikes. Earlier in the week, fighters targeted the residence of Afghanistan's acting defense minister, as well as a building that houses the Afghan intelligence service.
Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid claimed responsibility for Menapal’s killing in a text message to Radio Azadi, saying it was a "targeted attack."
"Unfortunately, the savage terrorists have committed a cowardly act once again and martyred a patriotic Afghan," Interior Ministry spokesman Mirwais Stanikzai said.
Menapal, 40, was a correspondent for Radio Azadi for several years until 2010.
RFE/RL President Jamie Fly condemned his assassination.
The chairwoman of the Afghanistan Human Rights Council, Shaharzad Akbar, expressed disbelief at Menapal's death and added a "reminder" to the Taliban: "Targeting civilians is a war crime."
"These murders are an affront to Afghans' human rights & freedom of speech," U.S. charge d'affaires to Afghanistan Ross Wilson said in a tweet.
Meanwhile, the intense fighting and heavy civilian casualties were on the agenda as the UN Security Council discussed the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan on August 6.
UN special envoy for Afghanistan Deborah Lyons questioned the Taliban's commitment to a political settlement, telling the UN Security Council that the war has entered a "deadlier and more destructive phase."
Lyons said the Taliban’s attempt to seize urban centers has come with "an extremely distressing" human toll.
She said at least 104 civilians had been killed and 403 wounded in fighting to take Laskhar Gah, the capital of Helmand Province since July 28; more than 460 civilian casualties registered in Kandahar since the start of the offensive there on July 9; and credible reports received by the UN of over 135 civilian casualties in western Herat Province.
"A party that was genuinely committed to a negotiated settlement would not risk so many civilian casualties, because it would understand that the process of reconciliation will be more challenging, the more blood is shed," Lyons said.
Afghanistan's UN Ambassador Ghulam Isaczai urged the Security Council to act to "prevent a catastrophic situation."
Regionally, the rapid pace of Taliban gains has Afghanistan’s neighbors worried about stability and spillover from the conflict.
In recent weeks, hundreds of Afghan troops have fled into neighboring Tajikistan and Uzbekistan in the face of a Taliban offensive that has raised concerns of larger refugee flows.
Even as it has stepped up its diplomatic efforts including through direct meetings with the Taliban, Russia has expressed concern about extremist group's advances, launching military drills this week with Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.
On August 6, five Central Asian heads of state meeting in the Turkmen city of Avaza warned about the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan.
Tajikistan’s president, Emomali Rahmon, noted that militants control the entire border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan.
Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev called for a "full cease-fire" and "mutually accepted negotiated compromises" in Afghanistan.