The Taliban on Friday captured their first provincial capital since launching an offensive to coincide with the departure of foreign troops, a major blow to an Afghan government desperately trying to push back the insurgents.
“Zaranj, provincial capital of Nimroz, has fallen to the Taliban,” Roh Gul Khairzad, the deputy governor of Nimroz, told AFP.
She said the city – in southwest Afghanistan near the Iranian border – had been taken “without a fight”, and social media showed clips of insurgents roaming the streets, being cheered by residents.
The veracity of the videos could not immediately be confirmed.
The fall of Zaranj came the same day as the head of the Afghan government’s media information department was shot dead in Kabul in an attack claimed by the Taliban.
The insurgents warned this week they would target senior administration figures in retaliation for increased air strikes.
As the UN Security Council met in New York to discuss the conflict, Deborah Lyons, head of the world body’s Afghan aid operation, painted a grim picture of the country’s deteriorating situation.
“The Security Council must issue an unambiguous statement that attacks against cities must stop now,” Lyons said via video-link from Kabul.
In the Afghan capital, officials expressed shock at the assassination of Dawa Khan Menapal, one of the government’s leading voices.
“Unfortunately, the savage terrorists have committed a cowardly act once again and martyred a patriotic Afghan,” said interior ministry spokesman Mirwais Stanikzai.
Menapal was popular in Kabul’s tight-knit media community, and known for pillorying the Taliban on social media – even jokingly at times.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said Menapal “was killed in a special attack carried out by mujahideen”.
The US condemned the killing, with White House spokesman Jen Psaki saying the insurgents “do not have to stay on this trajectory”.
“They can choose to devote the same energy to the peace process as they are to their military campaign. We strongly urge them to do so.”
Psaki added that President Joe Biden continued to believe it was right to pull US troops out after 20 years of war.
The militants had warned Wednesday of more attacks targeting Afghan government leaders.
The day before, defence minister Bismillah Mohammadi escaped an assassination attempt in a bomb-and-gun attack.
The Afghan and US militaries have stepped up air strikes, and the Taliban said the attack on Mohammadi was their response.
Fighting in Afghanistan’s long-running conflict has intensified since May, when foreign forces began the final stage of a withdrawal due to be completed later this month.
The Taliban already control large portions of the countryside, and are now challenging government forces in provincial capitals including Herat, near the western border with Iran, and Laskhar Gah and Kandahar in the south.
Government forces continue to hit Taliban positions with air strikes and commando raids, and the defence ministry boasted Friday of eliminating more than 400 insurgents in the past 24 hours.
Both sides frequently exaggerate battlefield casualty figures, making independent verification virtually impossible.
But even as Afghan officials claimed to be hitting the Taliban hard, security forces have yet to flush out the militants from cities they have already entered – with hundreds of thousands of civilians forced to flee in recent weeks.
Social media was also filled with videos of the devastating toll the fighting has taken in Lashkar Gah, capital of Helmand province, with images showing a market area in flames.
Aid group Action Against Hunger said its offices had been hit by an “aerial bomb” in the city earlier this week, according to a statement released by the organisation on Friday.
“The building was marked from the street and roof as an NGO organisation, and the office location has been communicated often to the parties involved in the conflict,” said the group, adding that no staff had been harmed.
In the key city of Herat, a steady stream of people were leaving their homes in anticipation of a government assault on positions recently won by the Taliban.
“We completely evacuated,” resident Ahmad Zia told AFP. “We have nothing left and we do not know where to go.”