RFE/RL’s Radio Azadi
August 6, 2021
Local officials in western Afghanistan say Taliban fighters have entered the provincial hub of Zaranj and its Kabul-backed governor and other senior officials have fled, leaving the militant group poised to capture its first major population center since an all-out offensive began four months ago.
A provincial administration official in a neighboring province said on August 6 that the capital of Nimroz Province is now largely under Taliban control although local police and other security forces are still resisting in some parts of the city.
Local officials describe panic among terrified residents that left many Afghan families scrambling to cross the border into Iran.
Zaranj has a recent population of around 50,000 people.
The push in Zaranj follows news earlier in the day of the assassination in Kabul by the Taliban of the head of the Afghan government’s Information and Media Center, Dawa Khan Menapal.
Menapal’s killing was the latest incident signaling Taliban militants’ increased focus on government targets as they also continue major offensives in other big cities including Herat, also in western Afghanistan, and Kandahar and Lashkar Gah in the south.
The intense fighting and reports of heavy civilian casualties are on the agenda as the UN Security Council prepares to discuss the security situation in Afghanistan later on August 6 at the request of the Afghan government, Norway, and Estonia.
A local elder in Nimroz, Haji Abdul Satar Noorzai, said that government officials fled as the Taliban advanced in Zaranj.
A Nimroz provincial administration official who did not want to be identified said residents were fleeing in panic, with some crossing the border into neighboring Iran.
He said Taliban fighters had posted photos of themselves taking over the nearby district of Kang and then approaching Zaranj itself.
“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,” the official said.
He said Iran had set up a refugee camp at the border “and took in anyone who entered the country, military or civilian.”
He estimated that there were only around 60 security troops left in Zaranj.
“The rest of the city is under Taliban control,” the official said.
Later, reports said Iran had closed its border with Afghanistan in Sistan-Baluchistan Province due to the situation across the border in Zaranj.
Fighting in Afghanistan has intensified since May 1, when the United States and other countries officially began withdrawing their forces in a pullout that is expected to be completed this month.
Taliban militants now control large portions of the country and are confronting Afghan forces in and near a handful of large cities.
A spokesman for the Taliban militant group, 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.
Militant attacks in the capital earlier in the week targeted the residence of Afghanistan’s acting defense minister, as well as a building that houses the Afghan intelligence service.
Gunmen also shot dead a district governor in the Maidan Wardak Province on August 3.
Taliban commanders later vowed they would be targeting government officials in retaliation for Afghan and U.S. air strikes against militant fighters.
The United Nations and humanitarian groups have expressed alarm this week at revenge killings by the Taliban targeting civilians caught up in fighting that has increasingly moved to population centers including provincial capitals.
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.
Wilson said “we are saddened & disgusted” by Menapal’s killing.
He called him “a friend and colleague, whose career was focused on providing truthful information to all Afghans about #Afghanistan.”
Menapal worked for RFE/RL’s Radio Azadi as a Kandahar correspondent from February 2006 to May 2010.
Three Taliban commanders told the Reuters news agency this week that the militants were changing their strategy from capturing rural areas to focusing on cities.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Aleksandr Bikantov told a press conference in Moscow on August 4 that “the Taliban has no resources to capture and hold major cities, including the country’s capital, Kabul.”
“Their offensive is running out of steam,” Bikantov said, adding however that the security situation in the country “is degrading.”
On August 6, five Central Asian heads of state meeting in the Turkmen city of Avaza warned about the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan, which shares borders with the post-Soviet republics of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan.
Tajikistan’s president, Emomali Rahmon, noted that militants control the entire border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan.
“A number of terrorist organizations are actively strengthening their positions in these areas,” Rahmon said.
Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev called for a “full cease-fire” and “mutually accepted negotiated compromises” in Afghanistan.
With reporting by Reuters, AP, AFP, and TASS
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