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  • War in Afghanistan (2001-present)

image sourceEPAimage captionThe fall of Zaranj will be seen as a heavy blow to Afghan government forces (pictured)

A city in southwestern Afghanistan has become the country's first provincial capital to fall to the Taliban in recent years.

Multiple local officials said the Taliban had captured Zaranj, in Nimroz province, on Friday afternoon, in a significant blow to government forces.

The militants continue to make rapid advances in the country, as foreign troops withdraw.

They have taken swathes of countryside and are now targeting key cities.

Other provincial capitals under pressure include Herat in the west, and the southern cities of Kandahar and Lashkar Gah.

The UN's special envoy for Afghanistan, Deborah Lyons, on Friday said the war in the country had entered a "new, deadlier, and more destructive phase", with more than 1,000 civilians killed in the past month.

She warned that the country was heading for "catastrophe", and called on the UN Security Council to issue an "unambiguous statement that attacks against cities must stop now".

"To attack urban areas is to knowingly inflict enormous harm and cause massive civilian casualties. Nonetheless, the threatening of large urban areas appears to be a strategic decision by the Taliban, who have accepted the likely carnage that will ensue," she said.

City 'fell without a fight'

Taliban insurgents claimed victory in Zaranj – a major trading hub near the Iranian border – in a post shared on Twitter.

"This is the beginning, and see how other provinces fall in our hands very soon," a Taliban commander told Reuters news agency.

Pictures posted on social media showed civilians looting items from government buildings. Taliban insurgents were photographed inside the local airport and posing at the entrance to the city.

The militants made a sustained bid to seize the city after capturing surrounding districts.

But Nimroz's Deputy Governor Roh Gul Khairzad told reporters that Zaranj had fallen "without a fight".

She and other local officials complained of a lack of reinforcements from the Afghan government.

"The city was under threat for a while, but no one from the central government listened to us," Ms Khairzad said.

The last time the Taliban captured a provincial capital was in 2016, when they briefly held the northern city of Kunduz.

The militants have swept through Afghanistan in recent months, launching a major offensive to coincide with the withdrawal of US forces after 20 years of military operations. The capture of Zaranj will add to their momentum, analysts say.

Overnight, US and Afghan forces launched air strikes on the group's positions in Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province.

Government troops have vowed not to lose the strategically significant city, and fighting there has been fierce. Officials have urged civilians to evacuate, with thousands trapped or fleeing for their lives.

media captionIn July, the BBC's Yogita Limaye travelled to Afghanistan's Kunduz province, most of which has fallen to the Taliban

Earlier on Friday, the director of Afghanistan's government media centre was assassinated by Taliban militants in the capital, Kabul. The Taliban said Dawa Khan Menapal had been "punished for his deeds".

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US Chargé d'Affaires to Afghanistan Ross Wilson tweeted that he was "saddened and disgusted" by the killing, adding: "These murders are an affront to Afghans' human rights and freedom of speech."

Days earlier, an attack on the Afghan defence minister's house in Kabul left at least eight people dead. The minister, Bismillah Khan Mohammadi, was not at home at the time.