The Taliban on Wednesday toppled security outposts on the edge of the southern Afghan city of Tarin Kot, officials said, threatening the third provincial capital in recent weeks.
The insurgents crept within seven kilometres of the capital of the restive poppy-rich province of Uruzgan, prompting urgent calls from officials for reinforcements and air support.
The Taliban advance comes as the insurgents threaten to capture Lashkar Gah in neighbouring Helmand province, and northern Kunduz city, which the militants briefly seized last year in a stinging blow to Afghan forces.
“Some security checkpoints fell to the Taliban without much resistance from security forces,” said Haji Baridad, a tribal elder in Tarin Kot, raising a concern echoed by other local residents.
“If they continue to flee, local people will be forced to take up arms ourselves to defend the city.”
But Dost Mohammed Nayab, the provincial governor’s spokesman, dismissed the charge, insisting the Taliban will not be allowed to breach Tarin Kot’s outer defences.
“The Taliban did capture some outposts and came within seven kilometres of the city, but they are being pushed back with the arrival of new commando forces,” Nayab told media.
“These reinforcements are not enough but more are expected to arrive,” he said.
Nayab added that six security forces had been killed in the last two days of fighting, while reporting 36 Taliban fatalities.
Speculation swirled that the Taliban were seeking to advance on the city’s prison to free captured militants, repeating a tactic used when they overran Kunduz last year.
Seen previously as a rural militant movement capable only of hit-and-run attacks on cities, the Taliban have demonstrated an alarming new push into urban centres in recent months.
The deteriorating security highlights the struggle of Afghan forces, stretched on multiple fronts, to secure remote provinces such as Uruzgan, where Australian, Dutch and American troops fought for years.
As the Taliban edged closer to Tarin Kot, they promised on social media to show leniency towards government forces who surrender unconditionally.
Defence ministry spokesman Mohammad Radmanish rejected the “propaganda campaign”, saying the Taliban would be flushed out from the city’s outskirts.
As Afghanistan’s conflict worsens, it is estimated more than one million people will be displaced by the end of the year, UN humanitarian chief Stephen O’Brien said, calling on the international community to scale up its support.
“Families have lost their homes and livelihoods. Displaced people are living in tents, unable to feed their children and have had little or no formal education,” he said on Wednesday.
“This cyclical pattern of prolonged conflict must end to avoid another of generation of children being lost to war and suffering.”