Afghan officials say more than 800 Taliban fighters have launched an offensive in Helmand Province aimed at retaking territory that was recently transferred to the control of Afghan government forces by departing U.S. troops.
Provincial governor spokesman Omar Zwak says at least 100 militants, 21 Afghan soldiers, and 40 civilians have been killed in five days of fighting.
The casualty toll could not immediately be confirmed.
Correspondents report that some 2,000 families have fled fighting in the districts of Sangin, Nowzad, Kajaki, and Musa Qala.
The battle is along the northern arc of the Helmand River and its tributaries, a stretch of valleys and "green belt" agricultural land between the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah, and the strategic Kajaki dam.
The region is notorious as one of the bloodiest areas of fighting in Afghanistan for British and U.S. troops who have been deployed in Helmand Province since late 2001.
The green belt also is one of the biggest opium-producing areas in Afghanistan.
The last U.S. Marines withdrew from the northern arc of the Helmand River in early May.
Four Afghan Brigades
Security there is now the responsibility of four brigades in the 215th Afghan National Army Corps.
The commander of that force, Major General Sayed Malouk, said while touring bases in Sangin and Gereshk in May that the departure of the last U.S. Marines was a "proud moment” because Afghans “are here able to defend ourselves and our country."
Malouk also scoffed at critics who said the region soon "would fall into the enemy’s hands," saying, "As you see, nothing like that is happening. And nothing is going to happen in the future, either."
At a wartime peak, during the 2010 U.S. military surge, there were 21,000 U.S. Marines deployed in Helmand Province and other parts of southwestern Afghanistan.
The NATO-led force began dismantling a series of 200 bases and checkpoints along the Helmand River in 2012.
About 4,500 U.S. Marines now remain in Helmand, along with about 2,500 British troops, 800 Georgians, and smaller contingents of Estonians, Danes, and Jordanians.
In addition to the major Taliban offensive in Helmand, government forces continue to be challenged by small guerrilla attacks in other parts of Afghanistan.
Four civilians were killed on June 25 in the northern province of Faryab when a bomb hidden in a push cart was detonated by remote control near a district government building.
Ahmad Javed Bedar, a spokesman for the provincial governor, said insurgents placed the explosives inside a water container and told a child to take it to the administrative headquarters of the Dawlat Abad district.
Nine civilians and a police officer also were wounded in that attack.
Separately, Afghanistan’s Interior Ministry said three insurgents were killed late on June 24 while trying to set up a roadside bomb that exploded in the southeastern province of Khost.
In the Afghan capital overnight, four civilians were wounded by a rocket that struck a house near Kabul’s international airport.
Based on reporting by AP, Reuters, AFP, and dpa