Afghan Official: Taliban Capture District in Helmand

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Kandahar, Afghanistan (AP) -- An important district in Afghanistan's southern poppy-growing province of Helmand has fallen under Taliban control after heavy fighting that killed around 17 police and wounded up to 10 others, an official said on Saturday.

The director of Helmand's provincial council, Kareem Atal, said that Taliban militants attacked a series of police checkpoints Friday night as part of a larger assault in the Kanashin district.

Earlier, his deputy, Abdul Majeed Akhonzada, told The Associated Press that Kanashin district has "fallen into Taliban hands."

The fall of the district, which borders Pakistan and major poppy-producing districts, means "Taliban are in control of 60 percent of Helmand," Akhonzada said.

Much of the area of Marjah, Sangin, Garmser and Dishu districts have already fallen to the Taliban, he said.

The district police chief and deputy head of the local branch of the national intelligence agency were critically wounded in clashes, he said.

Precise casualty figures can't be confirmed as fighting was still underway, he added. He said that bodies still littered the ground.

Atal said troops had been deployed to retake the district, but it would be a difficult task "because the Taliban have destroyed all the checkpoints."

The central authorities have been trying for many months to convince rural districts to reduce the number of police checkpoints, as they are manned by small numbers of policemen who are vulnerable to Taliban attack. They want to consolidate the checkpoints, so that there are fewer of them but each one is more heavily-manned and less vulnerable to attack.

Residents, however, prefer the regularly-spaced small checkpoints, officials have said, as they make them feel safe.

Kanashin is a major drug smuggling route. Helmand produces most of the world's opium, the raw material of heroin, which helps fund the Taliban's insurgency.

The fall of Kanashin follows a report by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, which concluded that government forces have lost five percent of the territory they held at the end of January.

The report released earlier this week said that about 65.6 percent of districts across Afghanistan were under government "control or influence" at the end of May, "a decrease from the

70.5 percent" at the end of January.

It said that of Afghanistan's 407 districts, 268 were under government control of influence, 36 or 8.8 percent were under insurgent control or influence, and 104 or 25.6 percent were considered "at risk."

The Taliban have been fighting to overthrow the Kabul government since 2001, when their regime was ousted by the U.S. invasion.

The insurgents consider Helmand, along with neighboring Kandahar province, to be their heartland.

Elsewhere on Saturday, explosives hidden in a fruit cart at a market in the western city of Herat killed two people and wounded six others, according to Abdul Rawoof Ahmadi, spokesman for the provincial police chief.

He said that the bomb, which went off at around 9.30am, targeted Afghan security forces who were buying fruit and other supplies for their nearby base.

A 40-year-old man was killed instantly and a 23-year-old man died later of his injuries, Ahmadi said.

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Associated Press Writer Karim Sharifi in Kabul, Afghanistan contributed to this story.

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