Afghan troops are being deployed to the capital of the key southern province of Helmand amid intense fighting with the Taliban in surrounding areas and fears the city could fall to the insurgents within days, officials said Wednesday.
According to Kareem Atal, the head of Helmand's provincial council, Taliban fighters have completely surrounded Lashkar Gah after weeks of intense fighting across the province. Army and police units have now been pulled back from checkpoints farther afield and brought back to reinforce the city.
Also, "new forces are arriving" in the city, he added.
The fighting has closed all the highways leading into Lashkar Gah, forcing up prices for food and other basics inside the provincial capital, Atal said.
Doctors Without Borders, the international medical charity, has reduced its international staff in Lashkar Gah and is maintaining basic emergency and surgical services, said the country representative Guillem Molinie.
The charity, known by its French acronym MSF, has a 300-bed hospital in the city and usually functions with 25 international staff. Molinie would not say how many staff had been evacuated.
He said that the number of people arriving for treatment after being caught up in fighting in districts around the city had been reduced in recent days by road closures.
"With fears of the town being taken, non-emergency patients prefer to delay their treatment," he told The Associated Press, though 400 patients arrived at the hospital's emergency room on Tuesday.
"We are concerned about urban fighting — it is getting closer to the urban center," he said.
Helmand is a strategically important province for both the Kabul government and the Taliban, whose insurgency is now in its 15th year. It produces opium, which is the raw material for most of the world's heroin and which funds the insurgency.
Southern Afghanistan is considered the Taliban heartland. During the Taliban 1996-2001 rule of the country, they made neighboring Kandahar province the seat of their extremist regime.