Taliban capture Zaranj, a provincial capital of Afghanistan, in symbolic victory

KABUL, Afghanistan – The Taliban have captured the capital of one of the western provinces of Afghanistan, Afghan officials said on Friday, a symbolic step in the insurgents’ relentless march to regain power in the country.

Zaranj, the provincial capital of Nimruz on the Afghan-Iranian border, has collapsed and is now in the hands of the insurgents, according to Rohgul Khairzad, the vice-governor of Nimruz, and Haji Baz Mohammad Naser, the head of the provincial council.

It is the first provincial capital to be captured by the insurgent group since the Biden administration announced it would completely withdraw US troops from Afghanistan by next month. The Taliban besieged scores of these towns for weeks, and the likely fall of Zaranj, a town of 160,000, is the Taliban’s first major breakthrough.

The city’s collapse happened the same day a senior government official was assassinated in the capital Kabul. It also happened as insurgents pressed heavily into other provincial towns, in a day of grim news for the government.

“All the people are hiding in their homes for fear of the Taliban,” said Khair-ul-Nisa Ghami, a member of the provincial council. “The situation is very worrying. People are afraid, ”she said, adding:“ The Taliban captured the city without any fighting. “

Mr. Naser, the head of the provincial council, said the government had not sent reinforcements to Zaranj and that the authorities had decided to abandon the town in order to avoid casualties. He denied that an agreement was reached with the Taliban.

Located in the remote southwestern corner of the country, Zaranj is Afghanistan’s main hub for illegal migration. For decades, a steady stream of Afghans displaced by conflict and poverty have flocked to the city’s smuggler-owned hotels and negotiated deals to cross the mountains into Iran.

Since the Taliban began their military campaign in May, the city has been teeming with people seeking to leave the country. In early July, around 450 vans carrying migrants meandered from Zaranj to crossing points along the Iranian border each day – more than double the number of cars that made the trip in March, according to David Mansfield, a migration researcher at the British Overseas Development. Institute.

The capture of Zaranj is a symbolically significant development in the Taliban’s campaign, as they have moved away from targeting rural districts to focus on attacking provincial capitals.

The 215th Corps of the Afghan National Army is responsible for security in Zaranj and Lashkar Gah, the capital of neighboring Helmand province, which has been under siege for several days. Leaders of the 215th Corps focused on the defense of Lashkar Gah, leaving Zaranj vulnerable to capture.

The Taliban also took responsibility for the assassination on Friday of a senior government official in Kabul. Dawa Khan Meenapal, the head of the government’s information and media center, was shot dead in a targeted attack.

The assassination came days after a coordinated attack by the insurgent group on the residence of the acting defense minister that left eight people dead. This assault highlighted the Taliban’s ability to strike into the heart of the Afghan capital as they continue their vast military campaign.

In northern Afghanistan on Friday, the Taliban attacked another provincial capital, Sheberghan, from five directions, torching homes and wedding halls, and attacking the police headquarters and prison. There were many civilian casualties, said Halima Sadaf Karimi, MP for Jowzjan province, of which Sheberghan is the capital.

Fighting also continued around the large western city of Herat, in the city of Kandahar in the south and in other provincial capitals.

The government’s response to recent insurgent victories has been piecemeal. Afghan forces have retaken some districts, but the Afghan Air Force and its commandos – who have been deployed to hold the territory that remains as regular army and police units retreat, surrender or refuse to fight – are exhausted.

In place of the security forces, the government has once again turned to local militias to fill in the gaps, a move reminiscent of the chaotic and ethnically divided civil war of the 1990s that many Afghans now fear will return.

Christina Goldbaum and Thomas Gibbons-Neff contributed reporting.

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