KABUL, Afghanistan — Fierce battles near Lashkar Gah, the sand-swept capital of Afghanistan’s remote but strategic Helmand province, are continuing to rage between a handful of Taliban fighters and hundreds of Afghan forces backed by ground reinforcements and American airstrikes. Thousands of civilians have fled the surrounding districts, insurgents have blown up bridges, and the only highway out of the region has been cut off for nearly two weeks.

Officials said Lashkar Gah does not appear to be in danger of falling, but large patches of Helmand – a vast, dry territory in southern Afghanistan – have been under insurgent control for months, and their forces have moved steadily closer to the city. Recapturing the former bastion of Taliban power, which was liberated and controlled by NATO forces for years, would give the Islamist militia a launchpad near its current sanctuaries in Pakistan, control of the region’s vast opium trade and a huge propaganda boost.

So far, the insurgents have fought partway into the urban area but are being repelled elsewhere, according to local officials. Fighting continues in one district of the capital, Babaji, and safer neighborhoods have been flooded with more than 18,000 families fleeing conflict in outlying areas. Many have erected tents in vacant lots and abandoned stores, but only a fraction are receiving emergency food and supplies, they said.

“The situation is one of intense fighting, and the people are under a lot of pressure,” Kareem Atal, head of the provincial council, said in a telephone interview Saturday from Lashkar Gah. “Buses and trucks cannot go in and out of the province, so the price of rice and potatoes is rising very high, and the price of our melons and other fruits for export has fallen.”

Doctors Without Borders, the medical aid group, said Friday that “sick and injured people are struggling to reach” the 300-bed hospital the group runs jointly with the Afghan health ministry in Lashkar Gah. “The intensification and proximity of fighting is clearly limiting access,” said Guilhem Molinie, the group’s representative in Afghanistan. “In the immediate aftermath of conflict, one in four patients are unable to reach our emergency room.”

Atal said fighting is also continuing in several nearby districts of central Helmand, including Garmser and Nawa, and that the hotly contested highway linking Lashkar Gah and Marja, which had been cleared and reopened Thursday by government forces, is now back under Taliban control. The insurgents still hold several northern districts, including Nowzad and Musa Kala. If not for the recent addition of U.S. airstrikes, Atal said, “The Taliban would have surrounded Lashkar Gah by now.”

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