KABUL: An investigation is underway after two Afghan army helicopters crashed in southern Helmand province on Wednesday, killing nine people on board.
The MI-17 helicopters went down due to technical issues while they were taking off in Nawa district after 1 a.m., the Defense Ministry in Kabul said.
“Unfortunately nine individuals on board were martyred in the crash and the Defense Ministry is investigating the incident,” the statement added.
Afghan forces in the province, backed by US aerial support, have been fighting to block Taliban attacks that have displaced nearly 35,000 people in the past three days alone.
Omer Zwak, a spokesman for Helmand’s governor, said the helicopters had been assigned to drop off new troops and evacuate soldiers who had been wounded during an overnight attack in Nawa, which serves as the gateway to Lashkar Gah, Helmand’s capital.
While no group has claimed responsibility for the incident, officials blame the Taliban for the rise in attacks across the country and province.
“Additional troops and commandos have been deployed to join the fighting,” Zwak told Arab News. “The Taliban have been pushed back from some areas, and we have redeployed troops to some post from where we had a tactical withdrawal.”
He added that Defence Minister Asadullah Khalid was on his way to Helmand, which lies 693 km from Kabul, to “review the situation” in the province.
The Taliban is alleged to have launched a multi-pronged attack to capture Lashkar Gah since Sunday, seizing several security checkpoints in the area as part of the initiative.
A spokesperson for the armed group was unavailable for comment when contacted by Arab News on Wednesday.
The uptick in attacks has added to the woes of Helmand residents as fighting has displaced tens of thousands of them since Sunday, according to a UN statement.
“Fighting between the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) and a non-state armed group (NSAG) that started on 11 October continues to intensify near Lashkargah city in Helmand province,” the organization said Tuesday. “Local authorities report that some 35,000 people have been displaced into Lashkargah city.”
It added that the worst affected areas in the province were: Nahr-e-Saraj, Bolan, Babaje, Nad-e-Ali/Marja and Nawa-e-Barakzaiy. Some parts of Maywand district in Kandahar had also been affected.
The surge in strikes has disrupted power and telecommunication services in the area, with people finding it difficult to access mobile phone networks.
“The main highway running through Helmand, linking it with adjacent provinces, has been blocked due to fighting since Monday,” Helmand lawmaker Ghulam Wali Afghan told Arab News. “Those displaced live a miserable life. They have no shelter or food. The numbers of those forced to leave their houses are not in the tens or hundreds, they are in the thousands.”
Sayed Mohammad Ramin, head of the refugee department for the government in Helmand, said the displaced had not received any assistance from authorities or aid groups.
“Many live in the open air,” he told Arab News. “They have no food, shelter or water. We asked the traders and people to help at least those with kids and women, and fortunately, those who had the means have come forward and have helped.”
The UN said health facilities had also reported “hundreds of casualties” since Oct. 12, while local officials said several Taliban, Afghan forces and civilians had been killed in the attacks.
But the UN and Afghan officials did not provide an approximate number of casualties.
The spike in attacks comes as intra-Afghan talks continue in Doha based on an historic accord signed with the US in February.
The Taliban, at that time, pledged to refrain from violence or attacks on US-led troops, with Washington saying it would reciprocate the commitment.
However the Afghan army, while accusing the insurgent group of being “inconsistent” in its commitments, said it had carried out aerial attacks on Taliban positions during the current wave of fighting in Helmand.
It follows the US commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Scott Miller, and the US ambassador Ross Wilson urging the Taliban to halt its offensive.
There is a stalemate in the Doha talks, which began on Sept. 12, and the government and Taliban negotiators have yet to agree on a mechanism to end more than four decades of war in the country.
Former Afghan diplomat to Pakistan, Ahmad Saeedi, said the talks had emboldened the Taliban and “given it the feeling” that it could gain political concessions at the negotiating table.
“The other thing that has emboldened the Taliban is the announcement by Trump last week that it will pull the troops by Christmas," he told Arab News, referring to Washington's pledge to withdraw forces earlier than planned. “Since the announcement, I have learnt that some officials in provinces have been trying to get in touch with the Taliban for making a deal too. The announcement has brought down the morale of some soldiers and commanders and weakened some of them.”