KABUL (Reuters) - Afghan forces are still battling for control of a symbolic district of southern Helmand province, the NATO forces commander told reporters, contradicting the defense ministry, after more than a week of intense fighting supported by U.S. air strikes.
Helmand has been among the most fiercely contested regions of Afghanistan since the war began. British forces lost more than 400 men trying to defeat the Taliban and some 350 U.S. Marines were also killed there.
Musa Qala, which straddles smuggling routes, fell late last month to the insurgents for the first time since 2007.
“The city center and other places really don’t belong to either force now,” U.S. Air Force General Philip Breedlove, NATO’s supreme allied commander in Europe, said.
The statement contradicted earlier claims by the Afghan defense ministry that it had regained control of Musa Qala.
”ANSF (Afghan National Security Forces) are preparing now to retake that part of the city and I have great confidence that they will do that,” Breedlove said.
Afghan efforts have been aided by U.S. air strikes. The top NATO commander said U.S. forces had conducted 24 strikes since Aug. 22.
The Afghan army spokesman in Helmand asserted the district center was under government control this week, although fighting continued and Taliban forces remained on the outskirts.
A provincial council member said the Taliban were back after having retreated some days previously.
Fourteen years on from the U.S. invasion that toppled the Islamist regime after the Sept. 2001 attacks, the Taliban are undefeated and making gains since most foreign forces left last year, but are still far from their goal of retaking the capital, Kabul.
Reporting by Jessica Donati, Mohammad Stanekzai and Hamid Shalizi; Editing by Nick Macfie