Inside the battle for Sangin: Taliban ‘in control of all but handful of buildings’

Danielle Moylan in Kabul and Ben Farmer — Dec 23, 2015

Afghan Army soldiers. Their officers have finally received equipment, ammunition and food in Sangin

Afghan Army soldiers. Their officers have finally received equipment, ammunition and food in Sangin

The taunts were carried by loudspeaker over the compound walls to the exhausted and starving troops huddled inside.

The besieged collection of Afghan soldiers and police had little choice, they could surrender to the Taliban fighters who had swept into Sangin days earlier, or they would soon be killed.

As the trapped and exhausted troops listened to the ultimatum, around them lay the bodies of comrades who had died in the fighting and whose bodies could not be buried or removed.

Details of the grim conditions for government troops pinned down in central Sangin emerged on Wednesday night as the embattled security forces struggled to maintain their last foothold in the Helmand town which came to symbolise Britain’s bloody struggle in Afghanistan.

Just 14 months after British combat troops left the province, Taliban insurgents were in control of all but a handful of government buildings in Sangin’s district centre.

Government reinforcements dispatched by the Kabul government are still trying to negotiate their way through deadly belts of homemade bombs to relieve the remaining pockets of troops running low on food and ammunition.

The Taliban issued their own taunts to Britain, gloating the country was “stupid” for redeploying military advisers back to Helmand.

Around 10 British advisers flew from Kabul earlier this week as part of a Nato effort to try to sure up crumbling security in the province.

Qari Yousef Ahmadi, a spokesman for the Taliban, said: “The British troops cannot do anything. Same as before, they will face a bitter defeat and disgrace as they faced in the past 14 years.”

“Our message to them is that if they don’t want their troops to be killed … leave the country.”

Intense fighting washed across the town for a fourth day since Taliban fighters pushed into the town at the weekend.

In fierce house-to-house clashes, the Taliban overwhelmed security forces and took control of more government buildings, only for the Afghan forces to take them back hours later.

An Afghan army soldier, Yaseen Zamarai, told The Associated Press news agency from inside the town the Taliban were outside his building and had been pushed back after entering once earlier in the day.

“We need help, we can’t hold them for much longer,” Mr Zamarai said, “It’s not that we are afraid of death, but we didn’t think that our brothers would leave us like this.”

Residents flee as smoke rises over a suicide bomb attack that targeted foreign forces in the Helmand capital, Lashkar Gah Nov, 2015

Residents flee as smoke rises over a suicide bomb attack that targeted foreign forces in the Helmand capital, Lashkar Gah Nov, 2015. Click to enlarge

Both sides suffered heavy casualties, according to Abdul Majid Akhundzada, deputy head of Helmand provincial council.

“Most of our wounded personnel died because we had no medical care,” said Mr Akhundzada. “Even soldiers with minor injuries lost their lives.”

With intense fighting continuing, Afghan forces were unable to take care of their deceased comrades. They “had to fight alongside the bodies of their friends and the wounded soldiers,” said Ali Shah Khan, a tribal elder from Sangin.

Around 200 Afghan police and soldiers have been holed up for three days in Sangin’s Afghan army compound and a handful of other buildings.

Many of the soldiers have not eaten for several days, ammunition has run low and the local police chief has complained his men have been abandoned by the provincial governor.

Attempts to airdrop food to the defenders were unsuccessful until an air strike, believed to been carried out by Afghan air forces, temporarily dislodged Taliban positions and allowed supplies to get through, according to officials.

Local source also said the Taliban had resorted to shouting threats and taunts to the soldiers, encouraging them to surrender.

The government has promised reinforcements will soon reach the defenders, but a belt of homemade bombs has slowed progress of a relief force.

“The government must take immediate steps and send reinforcements,” said Mr Akhundzada. “Otherwise they will lose the district and all the forces will be killed.”

Nato spent years and billions of pounds building, equipping and training Afghanistan’s new army and police force, but as international troops have left, they have struggled to contain the insurgency.

The Nato withdrawal of foreign troops has deprived the Afghans of much needed air power for strikes and medical evacuations.


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