KABUL, Afghanistan — Taliban forces leading a spring offensive seized a remote town near Afghanistan's border with Pakistan on Saturday as Afghan government forces retreated, according to U.S. and Afghan officials.
After a week of intense fighting, hundreds of Taliban fighters overwhelmed local government forces, who said they were making a "tactical retreat" from Barg-e-Matal to spare civilians from getting caught in the crossfire.
Taliban fighters seized control of Barg-e-Matal nearly a year after they briefly seized the isolated Nuristan district center last summer but were driven out by U.S. and Afghan forces.
This time, hundreds of Afghan fighters defending the town fled early Saturday morning when they began to run out of ammunition and supplies. The U.S.-led coalition provided limited air support and made a few supply runs for the Afghan government forces, but didn't offer significant aid, according to Afghan and U.S. officials.
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"We could not resist," said Haji Mohammed Ismaile, a former Barg-e-Matal district governor, in a telephone interview with McClatchy as he joined hundreds of fleeing Afghan fighters. "There was no support from the government or the (international military) coalition."
"We could hear them on the radio calling us to surrender and telling us that if we lay down our weapons they would not kill us," said Ismaile. "But we did not surrender because they would slaughter us."
The Taliban assault is the latest in the militants' expanding spring offensive on a number of fronts, while U.S.-led forces are trying to train Afghan forces and mounting an offensive in southern Afghanistan that some officials say lacks sufficient troops.
Ahmad Nader Nadery, a prominent member of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, said that the fall of Barg-e-Matal to the Taliban should be a cautionary lesson for Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top allied military commander in Afghanistan, about relying on shaky Afghan forces to defend the country without outside help.
"Things are very fragile, and our fear is that if you withdraw from those places without building up a force that is responsible to the central government, then you can't hold those districts," said Nadery.