LASHKAR GAH, Afghanistan (Reuters) - Afghan security forces have “tactically retreated” from a key district in the southern province of Helmand that foreign troops battled for years to secure, as the Taliban make a late summer push to expand areas they control in a traditional stronghold.
The Taliban have made a grab to secure territory in the north and south this summer, but despite some gains, have struggled to hold ground, even though most foreign forces withdrew from Afghanistan in 2014.
Officials in Helmand said security forces had shifted the Naw Zad district governor’s office to a safer location about 3 km (2 miles) away to avoid civilian casualties during Taliban attacks, and that they had retained control of the district.
“The previous compound was surrounded by civilian homes and civilians could be harmed during Taliban attacks,” said Omar Zwak, a spokesman for the Helmand governor.
A senior provincial government source said the Taliban had occupied the compound and the surrounding area.
Taliban spokesman Qari Yousuf Ahmad said the militants made “thousands of police and army forces” leave the district after heavy fighting late on Monday.
“We have control of the district,” he said in statement.
Mohammad Asif, an elder from the area, said Afghan forces and the Taliban were still fighting on the outskirts of town on Tuesday.
Small towns in the fertile Helmand river valley saw some of the heaviest fighting by British and U.S. troops against the Taliban before foreign forces largely withdrew from combat missions.
U.S. soldiers used a drone strike against “individuals threatening the force,” on Monday in Wardak Province, spokesman Colonel Brian Tribus said. Afghan media reports said drone strikes in Wardak killed seven insurgents on Monday.
The Taliban has a strong presence in Helmand, and controls the Baghran district next to Naw Zad. It captured Naw Zad in July, the day after news broke of the death of elusive Taliban leader Mullah Omar.
It was then retaken in August by Afghan forces, who have since come under fierce attack.
A Taliban video released Aug. 10 showed the July battle. After intense exchanges of fire, the militants overrun a hill base and are shown driving in a U.S. Humvee truck apparently previously captured from Afghan forces.
The film ends with hundreds of fighters pledging support for new Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour. The Taliban are trying to heal a rift after the death of Omar, and are keen to show both unity and operational strength.
Reporting by Mohammad Stanekzai; Additional reporting by Mirwais Harooni; Writing by Frank Jack Daniel; Editing by Clarence Fernandez and Robin Pomeroy