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Taliban Overrun Afghan Police Checkpoints in Helmand Province

Taliban militants overran several checkpoints in southern Helmand Province and killed at least 25 policemen over the past two days, officials said on Monday, in the first major assaults in the province since the insurgents named a new leader last week.

While the Taliban made major inroads in Helmand last year, the violence had seemed relatively contained in recent months, after broad changes by the Afghan Army there and a new influx of American troops and advisers. But the fighting has again intensified, with an increased tempo of attacks in the districts of Nad Ali, Gereshk, Sangin and Marja, as well as in Babaji, a suburb of the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah.

Gul Agha, a commander of Afghan Local Police militia forces in Gereshk, said Taliban fighters had overrun five checkpoints in the district bordering the provincial capital, killed 12 fighters and executed their unit commander.

"A local commander named Safar Muhammad Akka was dragged and hanged in Yakhchal area of Gereshk by Taliban," Mr. Agha said. "He was an old man, but very anti-Taliban."

A regional police commander, Esmatullah Dawlatzai, put the death toll at 25 national policemen and Afghan Local Police militia fighters, with 15 wounded, in three districts over the past two days. But the head of the Helmand provincial council, Abdul Karim Attal, said on Monday that as many as 40 policemen had been killed or wounded in the past 24 hours across several districts.

Mr. Attal said that the government had repeatedly announced operations to clear Taliban threats, but that little progress had been made.

"The reason is that the security officials are involved in corruption -- they are selling weapons, bullets, and want to continue the same condition," Mr. Attal said. "If we don't see keen focus to change the overall security policy here, we will lose the province."

After their supreme leader was killed in an American drone strike in Pakistan, the Taliban announced the promotion of his deputy, Mawlawi Haibatullah Akhundzada, as their new leader on Wednesday. Officials expect violence to escalate after the selection of Mawlawi Haibatullah, who is a former judge with deep religious credentials but is not known for military victories, as it did with the insurgency's leadership change last summer.

However, Farhad Dawari, a university lecturer and analyst based in Lashkar Gah, said the escalation in Helmand had followed the patterns of previous years and probably had less to do with Mawlawi Haibatullah's selection.

The Taliban use the winter for training and the early spring to reap the taxes and other benefits from opium fields. With those two things behind them, Mr. Dawari said, the insurgents will begin pressing the Helmand provincial capital again.

"What we are hearing is that the Taliban's elite force is trying to make its way from Musa Qala District and is set on taking Lashkar Gah," he said.

On Sunday night, as the Taliban attacked army posts in Gereshk just outside the city belt, government forces in Lashkar Gah used heavy artillery, Mr. Dawari said. "No one slept in the city for most of the night," he added.

In Baghlan Province in northern Afghanistan, Taliban fighters reportedly burned the homes of local police officials and their relatives as they were forced out by a government operation.

Safdar Mohseni, the head of the Baghlan provincial council, said the Taliban had burned about 14 homes belonging to police officials as they were fleeing Mangala village.

The insurgents controlled large parts of at least three districts in the province and threatened the main highway connecting northern provinces to Kabul, the Afghan capital, Mr. Mohseni said.

"They are very close to the highway on both sides in Chashme Sher area, and can threaten it any time," Mr. Mohseni said. "Yesterday, they attacked two government vehicles. Civilian transport vehicles pass easily, but military and government cars have a hard time."

[Source: By Taimoor Shah and Mujib Mashal, International New York Times, 30May16]

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