KABUL, Afghanistan - Taliban fighters made an unusual bid to capture a provincial capital, Afghan and Western officials said yesterday, a failed assault that underscored their heightened boldness in recent months.
Hundreds of Taliban militants took part in the multipronged attack that began late Saturday against Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province, where British troops maintain a regional garrison. NATO-led forces carried out airstrikes to stave off the assault, which left more than 60 insurgents dead in fighting that continued into early yesterday, according to Afghan and Western military officials. Separately, about 40 militants were killed in fighting elsewhere in Helmand province after briefly seizing a district center, Afghan authorities said.
Until recently, the Taliban and allied militant groups generally eschewed frontal assaults on Western military installations or guarded Afghan towns, because such attacks present the far better-armed Western forces with an opportunity to inflict significant casualties. But lately, the insurgents appear to have concluded that the risk is worth the chance to score a propaganda victory. Such attacks also suggest that Taliban commanders feel confident they have a sufficient supply of foot soldiers to stage such costly assaults.
NATO's International Security Assistance Force said the fighting in Lashkar Gah broke out Saturday evening after hundreds of insurgents were observed on the outskirts of the town of about 85,000 on the banks of the Helmand River. The militants fired mortars at an Afghan army outpost, then attacked the provincial capital from three sides. The NATO-led force responded with an airstrike. Daoud Ahmadi, a spokesman for the provincial governor, put the number of insurgent dead at 62.
"If the insurgents planned a spectacular attack prior to the winter, this was a spectacular failure," said Canadian Brig. Gen. Richard Blanchette, an ISAF spokesman.
The insurgents killed in the attack included foreign fighters, Afghan officials said. The term is generally used to describe insurgents from Arab countries or Central Asia who join al-Qaida or the Taliban in Afghanistan. A Taliban commander, Mullah Qadratullah, was reportedly among the dead.
Last week, insurgents seized the center of Helmand's Nad Ali district. It was retaken over the weekend by Afghan and Western troops.