U.S. forces launched two airstrikes in an embattled district where Afghan forces were racing to repel a Taliban offensive, officials said Thursday.
The U.S.-led NATO coalition confirmed two airstrikes against "threats to the force" in Sangin, the strategic poppy-growing district in Afghanistan's southern province of Helmand that was nearly overrun by the Taliban earlier this week.
Residents of the district of 50,000 people said Taliban insurgents had seized the district center and main bazaar this week. The Afghan army rushed more soldiers to Sangin, and officials said Thursday that Afghan forces carried out an overnight airdrop of supplies and ammunition to soldiers who were pinned down inside an army barracks.
Combined with the U.S. airstrikes and the presence of U.S. special forces soldiers, who have been on the ground in Helmand for at least a week, Afghan officials were confident that the army would be able to win back ground in Sangin and other Helmand districts that the insurgents have seized in recent months.
"Helmand isn't falling," said Javid Faisal, spokesman to Abdullah Abdullah, chief executive of Afghanistan's national unity government.
"Clearance operations are under way and the foothold of the security forces has been expanding each day over the last three days," Faisal said.
Sangin, in Helmand's northeast, has become the latest flashpoint in a months-long Taliban offensive that has illustrated the shortcomings of Afghan security forces, which are battling the insurgents mostly alone since the U.S-led international coalition moved into a supporting role 12 months ago.
The district carries special significance for U.S. and British forces, which fought major battles against the Taliban there over the last decade.
Many of Sangin's residents have fled to other parts of the district as fighting between the Afghan National Security Forces and the insurgents has escalated this week.
An Afghan government official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the situation in Sangin had taken a turn for the better after the air drop of supplies and ammunition to Afghan forces.
Earlier, officials in Helmand expressed less optimism. On Wednesday, Mohammad Dawood, the Sangin police chief, warned the provincial governor that he would have to "prepare 200 graves" for police and soldiers that were suffocating due to a lack of supplies.
Security officials say the Taliban offensive has been bolstered by a large number of foreign fighters.
"Helmand has an open border and the terrorists continue their war supported by their sponsors in Afghanistan's neighborhood," Masoum Stanikzai, the acting defense minister, said at a Kabul news conference Wednesday.
Residents dispute the claim, saying nearly all the Taliban in the area are Afghans.
The Afghan official who requested anonymity said foreign fighters "aren't on the front lines, but they are training and supplying the enemies of Afghanistan. They are helping make bombs and train suicide bombers."
Earlier, the Afghan interior ministry said a Taliban commander was among 50 Taliban killed in the operations in Sangin.
According to interior ministry spokesman Sediq Sediqqi, the commander, Mullah Nasir, was in charge of the group's military command and a close ally of their current leader, Mullah Akhtar Mansour.
The Taliban did not immediately comment on the claim that one of their commanders was killed.
Latifi is a special correspondent. Staff writer Shashank Bengali contributed to this report from Mumbai, India.