KABUL, Afghanistan – Hundreds of Afghan and coalition soldiers reclaimed one southern town from the Taliban without incident Tuesday and were planning to recapture another, an Afghan official said.
The troops descended on Naway-i-Barakzayi, taking back the town after Taliban fighters fled, said Amir Mohammed Akhunzada, the deputy governor of Helmand province. Insurgents torched a police compound, a health clinic and a school before leaving, he said.
"The Afghan flag has been raised back over the compound," Akhunzada said.
The troops were planning to move onto Garmser, a town of several thousand that was captured by militants Sunday, Akhunzada said. He did not say when operations there would begin.
U.S.-led forces declared earlier Tuesday that the towns would be taken back in "decisive operations." They declined to comment on Akhunzada's report.
Afghan officials said a small group of police had holed up in a concrete compound in Garmser for 16 days before they were defeated by scores of Taliban fighters, including some who had apparently crossed from Pakistan.
Large numbers of militants chased police from the town of Naway-i-Barakzay after a brief clash the next day, officials said.
An official with the International Organization for Migration said about 4,000 Afghans have fled fighting between Taliban and coalition forces in southern Helmand province in recent days.
It was not clear how many, if any, were escaping the two towns taken by the Taliban.
Deputy Interior Minister Abdul Malik Sidiqi accused Pakistan-based Islamic groups Lashkar-e-Tayyaba — an outlawed militant organization — and Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam, a pro-Taliban political party, of aiding the Garmser takeover.
"They burned the Afghan flag and raised the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam flag," Sidiqi told reporters, saying the government "technically and temporarily left Garmser ... to prevent casualties to civilian people."
In the eastern Pakistani city of Lahore, Jamiat spokesman Riaz Durrani dismissed Afghan claims that his group's members were involved in the Helmand fighting.
"We are not helping any militant group in Afghanistan against (President) Hamid Karzai's government, but the fact is that he has failed to restore order," Durrani told The Associated Press. A Lashkar-e-Tayyaba spokesman could not immediately be reached for comment.
Taliban militants long have operated freely in their former strongholds in the southern provinces, but their ability to capture towns highlighted the weakness of Afghanistan's police forces in remote areas, and the challenge faced by international forces in restoring order in the country.
"The Taliban have reconstituted and dispersed, but this is certainly not about the Taliban being strong," said Col. Tom Collins, a coalition spokesman. "The reality is that the government has not yet extended to the far-reaching areas of the country."
Helmand, one of Afghanistan's most volatile regions, is dotted with small villages and towns linked by long, remote highways that provide ideal ambush sites for militants.
More than 10,000 U.S., British, Canadian and Afghan soldiers are waging an anti-Taliban offensive across southern Afghanistan. About 4,000 British troops, part of an expansion of NATO forces into the region, are deploying to Helmand province to take control at the end of the month from U.S. forces. They have figured prominently in fierce fighting there in recent weeks.
Afghanistan's recent violence has been the deadliest since the Taliban's 2001 ouster, with more than 800 people, mainly insurgents, killed since May, according to an AP tally based on coalition and Afghan figures.
The U.S. military said Operation Mountain Thrust has "seriously disrupted" the Taliban network in southern Afghanistan, particularly in northern districts of Helmand.
Suspected Taliban extremists killed two Afghan policemen Tuesday in an execution-style shooting and wounded another in southeastern Ghazni province, police said.
The military also said a homemade bomb exploded accidentally Sunday in southeastern Afghanistan, killing one militant and wounding three.
The blast occurred in Khost province as a group of militants were working on the bomb inside the house of an insurgent leader, killing him and wounding three others, the military said in a statement.