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Taliban Commander Who Led Attack on Afghan City Was Released From Prison Last Year, Officials Say

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KABUL—The Taliban commander overseeing an assault on the key southern city of Lashkargah is one of 5,000 former prisoners released by the Afghan government last year under pressure from the U.S., Afghan and Western officials say.

The commander, Mawlavi Talib, is one of thousands of former prisoners freed to further peace talks who have returned to the battlefield to join the Taliban onslaught against cities around the country, Afghan officials say. The presence of the Taliban fighters is a fresh strain in relations between Washington and Kabul, as the U.S.-backed government struggles to fend off Taliban attacks throughout the country.

Afghan officials said fierce fighting continued Tuesday in Lashkargah, the provincial capital of Helmand province, after heavy U.S. airstrikes and a counterattack by U.S.-trained Afghan commandos overnight. Under Mr. Talib’s command, hundreds of Taliban have pushed toward the city center over the past week. On Tuesday they launched an attack on Lashkargah’s prison in a bid to release more inmates and recruit them into the fight.

The fighting in Lashkargah is part of a wider countrywide Taliban offensive that had captured half of the country’s remote districts by last month and now threatens provincial capitals. On Tuesday, the government said that its commandos launched a counterattack in the western city of Herat, whose defenses were teetering. Taliban forces last month pierced defenses in Kandahar, Afghanistan’s second largest city, but government forces are holding steady there.

Afghanistan’s Defense Ministry said Tuesday its forces killed around 375 Taliban and wounded 193 in fighting across the country in the last 24 hours. Eleven improvised explosive devices were discovered and defused, the ministry said. The Afghan government has stopped releasing statistics on its own military casualties to avoid demoralizing its troops.

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