Residents of southern Spin Boldak town report heavy fighting between Taliban, which controls the area, and government forces who want to retake key border crossing with Pakistan.
Afghan forces have clashed with Taliban fighters in an operation to retake a key border crossing with Pakistan, as the insurgents tightened their grip in the north and battled for the stronghold of an infamous warlord.
"The Afghan forces are fighting against the Taliban, who have taken shelter in civilian homes," Jamal Nasir Barakzai, police spokesperson for southern Kandahar province, said on Friday.
"We have suffered one death and dozens of our fighters have got injured," Mullah Muhammad Hassan, who identified himself as a Taliban insurgent, told AFP news agency near Chaman in Pakistan, about five kilometres from the border.
A senior official on the Pakistan side of the frontier said heavy fighting could still be heard late on Friday afternoon, and noted the Taliban's white flags remained flying over the crossing.
The fight for the border comes as a war of words heated up between Kabul and Islamabad after the Afghan Vice President Amrullah Saleh accused Pakistan of providing "close air support to Taliban in certain areas".
Saleh did not provide any evidence to support his allegations.
Pakistan strongly rejected the claim, with a Foreign Ministry statement saying the country "took necessary measures within its territory to safeguard our own troops and population".
"We acknowledge Afghan government's right to undertake actions on its sovereign territory," it added.
#AFG “After heavy fighting against Najeel camp,casualties and fatalities among ANDSF including commandos. Deputy unit commander for commandos along with 14 commandos and 50 members of ANDSF surrendered to the Taliban.”Multiple security sources in Laghman&a tribal elder tells me.— BILAL SARWARY (@bsarwary) July 16, 2021
Heavy fighting continues
Residents of Spin Boldak, which fell to the Taliban on Wednesday, said the Taliban and army were battling in the main bazaar of the border town.
"There is heavy fighting," said Mohammad Zahir.
Afghanistan's interior ministry spokesperson Tariq Arian said Afghan forces had retaken the area, but Qari Yosuf Ahmadi, a Taliban spokesperson, said in a statement the insurgents still had control of Spin Boldak.
Reuters news agency said one of its photographers had been killed in Friday's Spin Boldak fighting, citing an Afghan army commander.
Danish Siddiqui, an Indian national, was part of a team that shared a Pulitzer Prize in 2018 and had been embedded with Afghan special forces, the agency said.
The border crossing provides direct access to Pakistan's restive Balochistan province.
Kabul says Taliban's top leadership has hid in the province for decades and plans attacks in Afghanistan from there.
Pakistan says militant group Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (or TTP), once headquartered in Pakistan's tribal region before the launch of a military onslaught in 2014, has set up bases across the border in Afghanistan to attack Pakistani security forces.
Almost three million Afghan refugees, half of them unregistered, have been living in Pakistan since the Soviet Union's invasion and defeat in Afghanistan.
Pakistan says it can't host more refugees fleeing fresh violence in Afghanistan.
As fighting continued, Pakistan postponed a special conference on Afghanistan in Islamabad.
An aide to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani told local media his government had asked for the Islamabad conference to be postponed as negotiators were already heading to Qatar.
Lifeline for southern Afghanistan
The Spin Boldak-Chaman border crossing is an economic lifeline for southern Afghanistan.
The landlocked country depends on the crucial commercial artery to export much of its agricultural produce, such as almonds and dried fruits, while also serving as the entry point for finished goods coming from Pakistan.
Controlling the crossing will likely provide the Taliban with an economic windfall, allowing the insurgents to tax the thousands of vehicles that pass through the frontier daily.
The border was closed as of late on Friday afternoon, with nearly 2,000 people massed near its gate on the Pakistan side, according to an AFP reporter.
Taliban target Dostum's stronghold
The fight for the border with Pakistan comes as the Taliban close in on the stronghold of long-time foe Abdul Rashid Dostum, with the insurgent group's spokesperson saying the warlord's militia forces had fled Sheberghan, capital of northern Jowzjan province.
Taliban has "captured the gate" of the city, Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid said in a WhatsApp message, adding, "Dostum's militia left the city and fled towards the airport."
The deputy governor of Jowzjan confirmed that the Taliban had reached the gates of the provincial capital, but said government forces were pushing back against the insurgents.
For years, Dostum has overseen one of the largest militias in the north, which garnered a fearsome reputation in its fight with the Taliban in the 1990s –– along with accusations that his forces massacred thousands of insurgent prisoners of war.
A rout or retreat of his fighters would dent the Kabul government's recent hopes that militia groups can help bolster the country's overstretched military.
The Taliban has capitalised on the last stages of the withdrawal of foreign troops to launch a series of lightning offensives across the country, capturing a swath of districts and border crossings, and encircling provincial capitals.
Foreign troops have been in Afghanistan for nearly two decades following the US-led invasion launched in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks.
Russia says US mission in Afghanistan has failed
Also on Friday, Russia said that the United States had failed in its mission in Afghanistan and blamed the withdrawal of foreign forces for the war-torn country's rapidly deteriorating stability.
The White House had tried to paint the drawdown of foreign troops in "the most positive colours", Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said.
"But everyone understands that the mission failed," he told reporters at a conference in Uzbekistan attended by Afghan President Ghani.
Lavrov earlier blamed the "hasty withdrawal" of US and NATO troops worsening security in Afghanistan and warned of instability spreading to neighbouring countries.
"In recent days we have unfortunately seen a rapid deterioration of the situation in Afghanistan," he said in comments carried by Russian news agencies.
"In light of the hasty withdrawal of the US and NATO troops, there is huge uncertainty around the future of the political and military situation in this country," he told reporters.
Afghan delegation heads to Qatar
Meanwhile, a delegation of Afghan political leaders led by top peace official Abdullah Abdullah left for Qatar to attempt to breathe life into stalled talks with the Taliban.
Abdullah, head of the country's High Council for National Reconciliation and former government chief executive, said that even as conflict rose and districts toppled to the Taliban insurgents, peace needed to be sought at the negotiating table.
"We hope that the Taliban side will see this as an opportunity and know that there will be no peace with continued capturing of districts," he said at Kabul's airport before departing.
"The result of peace can only be achieved at the negotiating table (and) despite all the pain that our people are suffering today... we believe there is still a chance for peace."
Meetings in Qatar's capital between Afghan government and Taliban negotiators have been taking place in recent weeks but officials have cautioned there are few signs of substantive progress as time runs out before foreign troops withdraw by September.