Taliban capture first Afghan provincial capital as US and NATO forces withdraw, report says

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Taliban fighters reportedly captured their first provincial capital on Friday since US and NATO troops began withdrawing from Afghanistan: the city of Zaranj, in the southern province of Nimroz.

The group posted images on social media showing insurgents inside the local airport and posing for photos at the entrance to the city, according to the Associated Press. Nimroz is sparsely populated in a predominantly desert region, and Zaranj has a population of around 50,000.

“The Taliban are in control of the city of Zaranj,” Rohgul Khairzad, deputy governor of Nimroz province, told NBC News in a Facebook post, noting that it fell around 4 p.m. local time.

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Khairzad added that she “encourages[s] to the people of Nimroz to try to stay inside until we see what the Taliban intend to do. ”

Fox News has contacted the US State Department for comment.

The governor of the province, Abdul Karim Barahawi, fled Zaranj to seek refuge in the peaceful district of Chahar Burjak, where the local Baloch ethnic population granted him protection, reports the Associated Press.

The Taliban have been flocking to Afghanistan for months, seizing large swathes of land as US and NATO forces complete their final withdrawal from the country by the end of the month.

Meanwhile, Afghan and American planes shelled Taliban positions in southern Afghanistan’s Helmand province on Friday as insurgents closed a major border crossing with neighboring Pakistan.

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Residents of Lashkar Gah, the disputed provincial capital of Helmand, said airstrikes destroyed a market in the center of town – an area controlled by the Taliban. Afghan officials say the Taliban now controls nine of the city’s ten neighborhoods.

The elite Afghan commandos deployed to Lashkar Gah, supported by air strikes from the Afghan and US air forces.

More than half of Afghanistan’s 421 districts and district centers are now in Taliban hands, according to the Associated Press. While many districts lie in remote areas, some are deeply strategic, giving the Taliban control of lucrative border crossings with Iran, Tajikistan and Pakistan.

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At a special meeting at the UN Security Council on Friday, Deborah Lyons, the UN envoy to Afghanistan, said the human toll of the worsening fighting was deeply worrying.

“The war in Afghanistan has entered a new phase, more deadly and more destructive,” she said. “The provincial capitals of Kandahar, Herat and Lashkar Gah in particular have come under significant pressure. This is a clear attempt by the Taliban to seize urban centers by force of arms.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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