Thousands of Afghans forced to flee their homes as fierce fighting erupts between government soldiers and Taliban in southern Helmand province, officials say.

As part of the pullout, US forces handed over a base in Helmand to Afghan government troops two days ago.
As part of the pullout, US forces handed over a base in Helmand to Afghan government troops two days ago. (AFP)

Afghan security forces have fought back a major Taliban offensive in southern Helmand province in the last 24 hours, officials and residents said, as insurgents launched assaults around the country after a missed US deadline to withdraw troops.

Attaullah Afghan, the head of Helmand's provincial council, said the Taliban had launched their offensive on Monday from multiple directions, attacking checkpoints around the outskirts of Lashkar Gah, taking over some of them.

Afghan security forces had carried out air strikes and deployed elite commando forces to the area. The insurgents had been pushed back but fighting was continuing on Tuesday and hundreds of families had been displaced, he added.

"There was a thunderstorm of heavy weapons and blasts in the city and the sound of small arms was like someone was making popcorn," Mulah Jan, a resident of a suburb of the Helmand provincial capital Lashkar Gah, told Reuters news agency.

"I took all my family members to the corner of the room, hearing the heavy blasts and bursts of gunfire as if it was happening behind our walls," he said. Families that could afford to leave had fled, but he had been unable to go, waiting with his family in fear before the Taliban were pushed back.

Although the United States did not meet the May 1 withdrawal deadline agreed in talks with the Taliban last year, its pull-out has begun, with President Joe Biden announcing all troops will be out by September 11. 

Critics of the decision to withdraw say the Taliban will try to sweep back into power.

READ MORE: Afghan forces, Taliban clash as US returns army base to Kabul

Two to six percent of withdrawal completed 

A Taliban surge in Helmand would have particular resonance, as the opium-growing desert province was where US and British forces suffered the bulk of their losses during the 20-year war.

As part of the pullout, US forces handed over a base in Helmand to Afghan government troops two days ago.

In Washington, the US military said that about two to six percent of the withdrawal process had been completed so far.

United States Central Command said that the equivalent of about 60 C-17 aircraft worth of material had been moved out of Afghanistan and more than 1,300 pieces of equipment had been handed over to be destroyed.

READ MORE: US formally begins retreat from its longest war in Afghanistan

Both sides claim inflicting losses

The Afghan Defence Ministry said that in addition to Helmand, security forces have been responding to attacks by the Taliban in at least six other provinces, including southeastern Ghazni and southern Kandahar in the past 24 hours.

The ministry said just over 100 Taliban fighters had been killed in Helmand. It did not provide details on casualties among Afghan security forces. 

Officials said the Taliban fighters initially captured some checkpoints but they were retaken by government forces who pushed back the insurgents.

"The enemy has now lost all the areas it had captured and suffered heavy casualties," Afghan of Helmand provincial council told AFP news agency.

The Taliban said dozens of Afghan troops were killed in the fighting. Both sides are known to exaggerate casualties inflicted on the other.

The May 1 deadline for US troops to pull out was agreed last year under then-president Donald Trump. The Taliban rejected Biden's announcement that troops would stay on past it but withdraw over the next four-and-a-half months.

The deadline has been met with a surge in violence, with a car bomb in Logar province killing almost 30 people on Friday evening. 

On Monday, at least seven Afghan military personnel were killed when the Taliban set off explosives smuggled through a tunnel they had dug into an army outpost in southwestern Farah province. 

READ MORE: NATO begins withdrawal of mission forces from Afghanistan: official

Taliban would roll back Afghan women's rights – report

Taliban "would roll back much" of the progress made in Afghan women's rights if they regain national power, according to an assessment released on Tuesday by top US intelligence analysts.

The US National Intelligence Council report likely will reinforce fears that the Taliban will resume the harsh treatment that women and girls suffered under their 1996-2001 rule should the insurgents prevail in a full-blown civil war.

"The Taliban remains broadly consistent in its restrictive approach to women's rights and would roll back much of the past two decades of progress if the group regains national power," said the US intelligence community's top analytical body.

At the same time, the council's "Sense of the Community Memorandum" said women's rights likely would be threatened after the US-led military coalition withdraws, a finding reflecting the conservative nature of Afghanistan's male-dominated society.

"Progress (in women's rights) probably owes more to external pressure than domestic support, suggesting it would be at risk after coalition withdrawal, even without Taliban efforts to reverse it," the assessment said.

READ MORE: US orders big drawdown at Kabul embassy as troops leave Afghanistan

Source: TRTWorld and agencies