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Taliban captures Nimruz province’s capital

KABUL, Afghanistan: The Taliban has captured the city of Zaranj in Afghanistan’s Nimruz province on Friday, making it the first provincial capital the group has taken from the Afghan government as it steps up offensives in two other provinces.

There have also been reports that the group has taken control of the city of Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province.

Fighting to reimpose strict Islamic law after being overthrown in 2001 by the US-led forces, the Taliban has intensified its campaign to defeat the US-backed government as foreign forces complete their withdrawal after 20 years of war.

The Taliban has taken dozens of districts and border crossings in recent months and put pressure on several provincial capitals, including Herat in the west and Kandahar in the south, as foreign troops withdraw.

Zaranj was the first provincial capital to fall to the group since the United States reached a deal with the Taliban in February 2020 for a troop pull-out. The last time a provincial capital was captured by the Taliban was in 2016 when Kunduz was briefly taken.

A spokesperson for Nimruz’s police, who declined to be named for security reasons, told news agencies that the Taliban had been able to capture the city because of a lack of reinforcements from the government.

Taliban sources said the group was celebrating, and Zaranj’s fall would boost the morale of their fighters in other provinces.

A Taliban commander said it has strategic importance as it is on the border with Iran.

“This is the beginning and [you will] see how other provinces fall in our hands very soon,” he said.

On Friday, the Taliban sent a message to the media saying it had released prisoners from the jail in Zaranj.

Qari Yousuf Ahmadi, a spokesman for the Taliban, also said they have taken control of the provincial intelligence headquarters.

Along with their written claim, the Taliban also sent photos and video to the media showing its fighters in the vicinity of government buildings and the entrance gate to the province. One picture shows its fighters stationed outside the provincial governor’s compound.

The news from Nimruz also comes as the UN Security Council met in New York to discuss the conflict.  The UN special envoy for Afghanistan on Friday questioned the Taliban’s commitment to a political settlement, telling the UN Security Council the war has entered a “deadlier and more destructive phase” with more than 1,000 civilians killed in the past month during a Taliban offensive.

“A party that was genuinely committed to a negotiated settlement would not risk so many civilian casualties, because it would understand that the process of reconciliation will be more challenging, the more blood is shed,” Deborah Lyons said.

“The Security Council must issue an unambiguous statement that attacks against cities must stop now,” Lyons told the 15-member council via video link from Kabul.

Zaranj is a comparatively remote city of more than 63,000 inhabitants.

As a border province that is home to large licit and illicit trades, the takeover of Nimruz would offer the Taliban another possible revenue source from customs.

Nimruz province shares a border with Iran and Pakistan, and Zaranj is considered among the war-scarred country’s famed historical cities.

The Helmand River, one of the biggest in Afghanistan, also passes through the city into Iran.