Thousands of Afghans flee homes as fighting erupts after United States pullout

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Thousands of Afghans fled their homes as fierce fighting erupted between government forces and the Taliban in a southern province after the US military began withdrawing its remaining troops from Afghanistan, officials said Tuesday.

Afghan forces pushed back insurgent attacks on multiple checkpoints in the past 24 hours in the province of Helmand, where the US military on Sunday handed over a base to government forces as part of its formal pullout that began on May 1.

About 1,000 families have fled their homes to escape the fighting that erupted on the outskirts of Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand, and some other parts of the province, said Sayed Mohammad Ramin, the region’s director for refugees.

He said the families had taken refuge in Lashkar Gah and had come from areas where fighting was intense in the past two days.

“We will survey their needs tomorrow, but many who still have not found shelter in the city need urgent assistance,” Ramin told AFP.

The defence ministry said government forces had killed more than 100 Taliban fighters in Helmand in the past 24 hours when the insurgents attacked some checkpoints on the outskirts of Lashkar Gah.

Another 22 Al-Qaeda fighters from Pakistan were also killed in the fighting, the ministry said.

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,” Attaullah Afghan, head of the Helmand provincial council, told AFP.

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

UK-based medical care provider Emergency said it is receiving large numbers of “war wounded patients” at its surgical centre in Lashkar Gah due to widespread fighting in the area since May 1.

It said the hospital received 106 patients, of which 65 had to be admitted.

“These are very difficult days in Lashkar Gah … We have also put beds in the physiotherapy room to accomodate all the injured patients,” Viktor Urosevic, medical coordinator at the hospital, said in a statement issued by Emergency.

Emergency’s Afghanistan Coordinator, Marco Puntin, said fighting in Helmand was not an isolated event.

“We have witnessed an escalation of conflict across Afghanistan,” he said.

Fighting was also reported in several other provinces since the US military formally began pulling out its remaining 2,500 troops.

The Pentagon has downplayed the fighting.

“We’ve seen nothing thus far that has affected the drawdown, or had any significant impact on the mission at hand in Afghanistan,” US Department of Defence spokesman John Kirby said on Monday.

Nearly 20 years after US and allied NATO troops invaded Afghanistan and ousted the Taliban government as they pursued Al-Qaeda after the September 11, 2001 attacks, President Joe Biden ordered in April the final withdrawal.

On Tuesday, US officials said the military has completed two to six percent of the withdrawal.

The Taliban attacks on government forces have raised concerns that American troops were also at risk as they pull out.

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