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Taliban threatening capture of Afghanistan provincial capital

Afghan security officials arrived in the city of Herat on Sunday as the Taliban escalated its push to claim major cities in the midst of U.S. withdrawal from the country. File Photo by Jalil Rezayee/EPA-EFE
Afghan security officials arrived in the city of Herat on Sunday as the Taliban escalated its push to claim major cities in the midst of U.S. withdrawal from the country. File Photo by Jalil Rezayee/EPA-EFE

Aug. 1 (UPI) -- The Taliban has increased pressure on some of Afghanistan's largest cities over the weekend threatening to seize their first provincial capital on Sunday.

The Afghan military brought special forces into Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province, on Saturday as local journalists told CNN the Taliban had gained control of several districts in the city.

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Lashkar Gah intersects with multiple strategic routes including the highway between the major cities of Kandahar and Herat, and could potentially be the first of Afghanistan's 34 provincial capitals to be seized by the militant group.

The Afghan military reported fighting in 13 provinces with 254 Taliban killed in the past day, including 51 killed and 40 injured during fighting in Lashkar Gah.

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Taliban forces launched rockets at airports in Kandahar and Herat, while the Taliban accused a "mercenary enemy" of killing civilians in an airstrike in Lashkar Gah.

Afghan security forces representative Gen. Ajmal Shinwari said all troops were on alert due to "emergency situations" in Kandahar and Herat.

On Sunday, Afghan special forces were deployed to Herat as Interior Ministry adviser Abdul Rahman Rahman traveled to the capital city to calm "the atmosphere of panic" while pledging to deal "fiercely" with the Taliban.

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"Hundreds of special forces arrived in Herat province! These forces will increase offensive operations and suppress the Taliban in Herat. The security situation in the province will improve soon," the Ministry of Defense said.

A United Nations compound was attacked as the Taliban breached the city limits, prompting condemnation from the international organization but Taliban leaders described the destruction as "regrettable" and said the group remains committed to protecting the U.N.

The fighting comes as the United States is winding down its military presence in Afghanistan with 95% of troops and equipment out of the country and all troops set to be withdrawn from the region by Aug. 31.

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Amid the withdrawal, the United States has increased airstrikes in support of Afghan forces and U.S. Central Command commander Gen. Frank McKenzie said Tuesday the military is "prepared to continue this heightened level of support in the coming weeks if the Taliban continue their attacks."

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