In a blow for the embattled government, two defence force helicopters setting off for a military mission in Helmand have crashed into each other, killing nine people on board.
Afghanistan's defence minister has flown to the southern province of Helmand a day after government forces launched a counteroffensive against Taliban insurgents who have battled their way towards the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah, in recent days.
The fighting in the province, where US and British troops for years fought to clear Taliban from a string of poppy-growing districts, comes as Afghan government negotiators and the Taliban try to push forward power-sharing talks in Qatar.
In another blow for the embattled government, two defence force helicopters setting off for a military mission in Helmand crashed into each other early on Wednesday killing nine people on board, the Ministry of Defence said in a statement.
Acting Defence Minister Assadullah Khalid arrived in Helmand's capital, Lashkar Gah, to assess the situation and support the forces facing the major insurgent offensive that has overshadowed the peace talks and brought US air strikes.
The Taliban has seized several checkpoints and closed in on Lashkar Gah but officials said security forces had repelled overnight Taliban attacks in the districts of Nawa and Nad Ali, with casualties on both sides.
They declined to say how many.
The Taliban assault in Helmand is testing the resolve of the government and casting doubt over the talks to end the 19 years of war since the Taliban were ousted.
The violence could also throw into question President Donald Trump's pledge last week to bring home the remaining US troops by Christmas.
Thousands of civilians have been caught up in the fighting, with more than 5,000 families displaced.
One seven-month pregnant eighteen-year-old, who declined to be identified, was shot in the stomach when caught in cross-fire in Gereshk district this week.
She lost the baby.
"I hadn't even chosen a name for him," she said.
"My innocent child, gone forever."
Thousands flee Taliban onslaught
Tens of thousands of people in southern Afghanistan have fled their homes following days of heavy fighting between the Taliban and security forces, officials said on Wednesday.
"More than 5,100 families or 30,000 people... have fled the fighting so far," Sayed Mohammad Ramin, director of the refugees department in Helmand, told AFP.
"Some families are still living in the open in the streets in Lashkar Gah, we don't have tents to give them."
Resident Hekmatullah said he was forced to flee after a mortar hit his neighbour's house, killing two women.
"The fighting was so intense that I did not have time to take any extra clothes. I only took my family," said Attaullah Afghan, a farmer who fled with his family of 12.
Fighting was ongoing in at least four districts on Wednesday, Afghan officials said, adding that security forces have repelled repeated Taliban assaults in the area.
'To take all feasible measures'
The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan said thousands had fled and called on Taliban fighters and security forces "to take all feasible measures to protect civilians, inc. safe paths for those wishing to leave" the area.
Helmand, a Taliban stronghold, is where international forces fought some of the bloodiest campaigns of Afghanistan's 19-year war.
Under a deal the Taliban signed with Washington in February, the insurgents are not supposed to hit urban areas and are meant to keep violence down.
The US committed to pulling all foreign troops from the country by next May in return for Taliban security pledges and an agreement to begin peace talks with the Afghan government in Qatar.
Talks began last month between the Taliban and Afghan government in Doha but appear to have stalled as the two sides have struggled to establish a basic framework for negotiations.