An Afghan security guard was killed on Friday when a United Nations compound came under attack in Herat, officials said, as fighting raged between government forces and the Taliban on the outskirts of the city in western Afghanistan.
Violence has surged across the country since early May when the Taliban launched a sweeping offensive as the US-led foreign forces began a final withdrawal which is now almost complete.
The Taliban have seized several districts on the outskirts of the city – as well as two border crossings in Herat province adjoining Iran and Turkmenistan – as they continue a sweep across the country.
On Friday, the Taliban clashed with government forces on the outskirts of Herat city, the provincial capital, forcing many families to flee, residents said.
During the fighting, the UN’s main compound in Herat came under attack by rocket-propelled grenades and gunfire, a statement issued by the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) said.
“This attack against the United Nations is deplorable and we condemn it in the strongest terms,” said Deborah Lyons, the United Nations Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Afghanistan.
“The perpetrators of this attack must be identified and brought to account.”
UNAMA said the attack was carried out by “anti-government elements”.
It said, however, that the area where the compound is located was the scene of heavy fighting between the Taliban and government forces.
UNAMA said no UN personnel were hurt in the incident.
The Taliban put the incident down to possible crossfire.
“It is possible that guards could have sustained harm in crossfire due to close proximity of the office to the fighting,” the group’s spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, said on Twitter.
He added that Taliban fighters had “arrived at the scene” and that the compound was “not under any threat”.
The United States said it “strongly condemns” the attack in a statement from White House national security advisor Jake Sullivan.
“The United Nations in Afghanistan is a civilian entity focused on supporting peace efforts, promoting the rights of all Afghans and providing humanitarian and development assistance,” Sullivan said.
Al Jazeera’s Diplomatic Editor James Bays, reporting from Kabul, said fighting in a number of places around Herat had become the key focus in recent hours.
“Most worryingly I think for the Afghan government, according to local reports, is this fighting on the road between Herat city and Herat airport. We believe the airport is currently closed because of that fighting,” he said.
Residents reported clashes in the districts of Injil and Guzara, close to the airport.
“People there are terrified,” Abdul Rab Ansari, who fled to the city from Guzara, told AFP news agency.
“The fighting is heavy but they have not captured the district of Guzara so far,” said Mohammad Allahyar, who also sought shelter in Herat.
Afghan forces and fighters of veteran strongman and anti-Taliban commander Ismail Khan have been deployed around the city of about 600,000 inhabitants.
Khan, who previously fought the Soviet occupation forces in the 1980s and then the Taliban during their hardline regime in the 1990s, has pledged to fight the group again to counter their staggering advances in recent months.
Herat city is the second provincial capital the Taliban have entered in the last 24 hours. Taliban fighters entered the capital of the province of Helmand a day earlier, and clashes are under way there. Civilians rushed to evacuate the city.
“Since Thursday morning the Taliban have launched attacks from several directions on Lashkargah city,” a government official told Reuters news agency on the condition of anonymity. Lashkargah is the capital of Helmand, a southern province bordering Pakistan.
With US-led foreign forces nearing a complete withdrawal of troops, the Taliban have made swift territorial gains over the last two months but have not yet captured any provincial capitals.
A UN report this week said civilian casualties had been surging in recent weeks in Afghanistan, with as many killed in May and June as in the previous four months. The report did not cover casualties in July, when fighting has intensified further.
According to US watchdog group SIGAR, the Afghan government faces an “existential crisis” after the Taliban doubled its attacks following the February 2020 agreement with the US.
The deal called for the withdrawal of US forces in exchange for security guarantees from the Taliban, ending the United States’ longest overseas war.
The armed group largely honoured the agreement as it avoided targeting US forces, but it continued attacks against Afghan forces.
The Doha agreement also paved the way for peace talks between the Taliban and Afghanistan leadership.
But the Taliban-government talks have stalled while the US has steadily pulled out troops to a level of only several hundred now, with an August 31 deadline for full withdrawal.