Over 5,600 Afghan families displaced by fighting in south

LASHKAR GAH, Afghanistan (AP) — Renewed fighting between the Taliban and Afghan government forces in southern Helmand province has forced more than 5,600 families to flee their homes, officials said Thursday, the latest flareup that could undermine U.S. efforts to broker peace in the war-torn country.

The fighting comes as Afghan government representatives and the Taliban are holding peace talks in Qatar, where the Taliban have for years maintained a political office. The negotiations, envisaged under a U.S. deal signed with the insurgents in February, are meant to end Afghanistan’s grueling 19-year war and are seen as the country’s best chance at peace.

The Trump administration has pledged to pull out American forces from Afghanistan but U.S. officials have stressed that the Taliban have still not met requirements to reduce violence against the Afghans, a key element of the U.S. withdrawal plan.

In Helmand, Omar Zwak, the provincial governor’s spokesman, said Afghan security forces were trying to regain areas lost to the Taliban over the weekend, while local officials were scrambling to provide food and shelter to the growing number of civilians fleeing from nearby districts to the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah.

Ajab Gul, 25, and his family have been in the city for four days. “The Taliban have taken over our village and both sides in the battle are using light and heavy weapons, so how could we stay there?” he said.

Afghanistan’s refugee department estimates an average family has seven members, meaning nearly 40,000 people have likely been displaced, said Mohammad Ramen Ibrahimi, the department’s provincial director.

The Taliban control roughly 80% of Helmand province, and over the past year have waged several attacks on Lashkar Gah, only to be repulsed by Afghan security forces, whose control is largely restricted to district centers.

Last week, the Taliban launched coordinated attacks in different parts of Helmand province, Zwak said. He claimed that government forces had retaken much of the territory lost over the weekend, but operations were still ongoing in other parts of the province.

However, several internally displaced persons who had fled to Lashkar Gah told The Associated Press that the Taliban were in control of most of their districts — Marjah, Nad Ali and Nawa. They said the fighting and airstrikes by Afghan forces had forced them to leave their homes and property.

Most internally displaced persons were staying with relatives in Lashkar Gah, said Ibrahimi. His refugee department was providing food and shelter to those with nowhere to stay, but he said more people were coming to the city each day.

Zwak, the governor’s spokesman, said discussions were underway between the central government, charity organizations and local businessmen to help those in need.

In Kabul, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and other government officials attended the funeral for nine Afghan service members who died Tuesday night when two Afghan army helicopters collided in Helmand.

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Faiez reported form Kabul, Afghanistan

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