An Afghan police guard was killed Friday when a UN complex was attacked in Herat, officials said, as fighting raged between government forces and the Taliban on the outskirts of the western city.
Violence has escalated across the country since early May, when the Taliban launched a major offensive as US-led foreign forces began a final withdrawal that is now nearing completion.
The militants have taken dozens of districts across the country, including in Herat province, where the group has also captured two border crossings bordering Iran and Turkmenistan.
On Friday, the Taliban clashed with government forces on the outskirts of the provincial capital city of Herat, forcing dozens of families to flee, residents said, as the insurgents tightened their noose.
During the fighting, the UN’s main compound in Herat was attacked by rocket-propelled grenades and rifle fire, a statement from the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) said.
“This attack on the United Nations is deplorable and we condemn it in the strongest terms,” said Deborah Lyons, the UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Afghanistan.
“The perpetrators of this attack must be identified and held accountable.”
UNAMA said the attack was carried out by “anti-government elements”.
However, it said the area where the compound is located was the scene of fierce fighting between the Taliban and government forces.
The United States said it “strongly condemns” the attack in a statement by White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan.
“The United Nations in Afghanistan is a civilian entity focused on supporting peace efforts, advancing the rights of all Afghans and providing humanitarian and development assistance,” Sullivan said in the statement, urging the Afghan government and the Taliban to resume peace talks.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres also condemned the attack, reiterating the UN’s “commitment to support the government and people of Afghanistan in their efforts to achieve peace and stability”.
The militants say they will not target foreign diplomats, but rather have flagrantly violated international protocol.
When Islamist hardliners seized control of Kabul in 1996, they entered the UN compound and kidnapped the country’s former leader, Najibullah Ahmadzai, whom they brutally tortured and murdered.
Two years later, during their harsh regime, Taliban fighters broke into the grounds of the Iranian consulate in Mazar-i-Sharif and killed 10 diplomats and a journalist from the state news agency.
The European Union delegation in Kabul blamed the Taliban for the attack on the UN compound in Herat.
“The Taliban must account for the crime that will be considered an attack on all of us. It is against all guarantees given,” tweeted Ambassador Andreas Von Brandt, head of the EU delegation.
‘People are terrified’
For the past two days, insurgents and government forces have clashed in the suburbs of Herat, Afghanistan’s third-largest city with a population of 600,000.
An AFP correspondent there said Taliban and Afghan forces also fought on the road leading to the city’s airport on Friday, as residents reported clashes in nearby Injil and Guzara districts.
“People there are terrified,” said Abdul Rab Ansari, who fled to the city from Guzara.
“The fighting is heavy, but they have not taken Guzara district so far,” said Mohammad Allahyar, who also sought shelter in Herat.
Afghan troops and militias led by veteran warlord and anti-Taliban commander Ismail Khan have been deployed in the city in recent days.
Khan, who fought the Soviet occupation forces earlier in the 1980s and then the Taliban during their brutal regime in the 1990s, has vowed to fight the insurgents again to thwart their staggering progress in recent months.
Fighting has also been ongoing in the southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar since Thursday.
In Helmand, the Taliban attacked the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah from various directions on Thursday, local police officer Daud Shah said.
He said the insurgents were targeted by police checks but were later driven back after airstrikes by the Afghan air force.
At least 33 people were injured in fighting in the past 24 hours in Kandahar province, hospital authorities said.
In a tweet, UNAMA expressed concern about “escalating violence” in and around the city of Kandahar, citing “credible reports of civilian deaths”.