GHAZNI Afghanistan (Reuters) - Hundreds of Taliban fighters have stormed a strategic district in an Afghan province southwest of the capital and are on the verge of capturing it after killing dozens of people and beheading some in days of fighting, officials said on Friday.
The Ghazni provincial government has lost contact with police in the province's western district of Ajrestan, said Asadullah Safi, deputy police chief of the area. An army unit reported that fighting was raging late on Friday afternoon, another provincial official said.
"If there is no urgent help from the central government, the district will collapse," Safi said earlier.
The battle for Ajrestan illustrates the grave challenges facing Afghanistan's new president and the security forces in holding territory as foreign combat troops prepare to leave at the end of the year.
No longer pinned down by U.S. air cover, Taliban fighters are attacking Afghan military posts in large numbers with the aim of taking and holding ground.
Ghazni is on the main highway linking Kabul to southern Afghanistan, where the Taliban have been making advances in recent months.
The attack by an estimated 700 Taliban fighters began about five days ago and early reports were that more than 100 people had been killed, including 15 who were beheaded by the militants, said provincial deputy governor Ahmadullah Ahmadi.
Safi said a suicide car bomber attacked a police checkpoint early on Friday before provincial authorities lost contact with the district.
By late Friday afternoon, officials had contacted an army unit that reported that fighting was still going on, Ahmadi said. Afghan army commandos from outside the province had arrived to reinforce police and soldiers, he said.
The Taliban are fighting to expel U.S.-led foreign forces and the U.S.-backed Kabul government.
The Taliban have been focussing on regaining important opium-growing areas, such as the southern province of Helmand, and areas where they have traditionally enjoyed support, such as Kunduz province in the north.
Control of Ghazni's mountainous Ajrestan district, about 200 km (125 miles) from Kabul, could provide the Taliban with a launching point for attacks in two bordering provinces and along the crucial artery connecting the capital to Afghanistan's second city of Kandahar in the south.
The growing Taliban threat is likely to be the most urgent challenge for the new, U.S.-brokered government of national unity between President-elect Ashraf Ghani and his former rival Abdullah Abdullah.
Provincial authorities have appealed for help from the central government in Kabul, where Ghani is in the process of taking over the presidency from Hamid Karzai.
"We have asked repeatedly for helicopters to evacuate the wounded, but so far nothing has been done," Ahmadi said.
Months of deadlock over a disputed election and uncertainty over whether any U.S. troops will remain beyond this year has battered morale among Afghan security forces.
"Peace with the Taliban requires a strong government. At the moment, the Taliban think they can fight in every province and they believe they can overthrow the government," said Haji Mohammad Mohaqiq, Abdullah's running mate and the leader of Afghanistan's ethnic Hazara minority.
"Without international support it will be hard to provide security ... The example of Ajrestan district shows that without international commitment of troops, it will be difficult to handle the Taliban."
Additional reporting by Jessica Donat and Mirwais Harooni in Kabul; Editing by Kay Johnson and Robert Birsel