The Taliban has taken control of nine of the 10 districts in the Helmand provincial capital in Afghanistan as the insurgent group ramps up its advances amid the U.S. troop withdrawal from the region.
Majid Akhund, deputy chairman of the Helmand provincial council, confirmed that the Taliban seized nine of the Lashkar Gah districts in addition to the television and radio stations in the city, which are now off air, according to The Associated Press.
Residents of the city told the AP that the Taliban fighters were out in the streets, keeping the civilians trapped inside their homes and unable to leave to get basic goods.
Afghan forces are now urging residents in neighborhoods occupied by the Taliban to evacuate immediately.
“Please evacuate your families from your homes and their surroundings,” Gen. Sami Sadat, the Afghan forces' commander for Helmand, said in an audio message shared with journalists on Tuesday, according to the AP.
“We will not leave the Taliban alive ... I know it’s hard ... we do it for your future. Forgive us if you get displaced for few days, please evacuate as soon as possible,” he added.
The Taliban taking full control of Lashkar Gah would signal a major turning point in the insurgent group’s efforts, the AP reported. It would also mark the first time a provincial capital was captured by the Taliban in years.
Lashkar Gah is one of the three provincial capitals under attack by the Taliban as it ramps up its offensive amid U.S. and NATO troops withdrawal.
The insurgent group has already started to make inroads in two of Afghanistan’s major cities, Kandahar and Herat, after it launched attacks at a number of airports this weekend.
The move marked the first time the Taliban advanced in those two cities in nearly 20 years, according to The Washington Post.
The increased efforts by the Taliban come as the U.S. nears completion of its troop withdrawal mission.
All forces are set to be out of the country by Aug. 31, days before the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks that led to America’s longest war.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani on Monday blamed the U.S.’s “sudden” decision to withdraw troops from the region for the worsening of the country’s security situation.