KABUL -Taliban militants on Friday assassinated the Afghan government’s top media officer in Kabul, dealing a high-profile blow to the Western-backed administration following battlefield gains by the Islamist group as foreign forces leave.
The killing of Dawa Khan Menapal, head of the Government Media and Information Centre, was the latest in a series aimed at weakening President Ashraf Ghani’s democratically elected government.
In a tweet, U.S. Charge d’Affaires Ross Wilson said he was saddened and disgusted by the death of Menapal, whom he called a friend who provided truthful information to all Afghans.
“These murders are an affront to Afghans’ human rights & freedom of speech,” he said.
Scores of social activists, journalists, bureaucrats, judges and public figures fighting to sustain a liberal Islamic administration have been assassinated by Taliban fighters in a bid to silence voices of dissent in the war-torn country.
Fighting to reimpose strict Islamic law after their 2001 ousting by U.S.-led forces, the Taliban have stepped up their campaign to defeat the U.S.-backed government as foreign forces complete their withdrawal after 20 years of war.
An official in the federal interior ministry said “the savage terrorists killed” Menapal during Friday prayers.
“He (Menapal) was a young man who stood like a mountain in the face of enemy propaganda, and who was always a major supporter of the (Afghan) regime,” said Mirwais Stanikzai, a spokesperson of the interior ministry.
Elsewhere Taliban fighters intensified clashes with Afghan forces and attacked militias allied with the government, officials said, stretching their dominance of border towns and closing in on two provincial capitals.
At least 10 Afghan soldiers and a commander of armed members belonging to the Abdul Rashid Dostum militia group in the northern province of Jowzjan were killed.
“The Taliban launched violent attacks on the outskirts of (provincial capital) Sheberghan this week and during heavy clashes a pro-government militia forces’ commander loyal to Dustom was killed,” said Abdul Qader Malia, the deputy governor of Jowzjan province.
Another provincial council member said nine of the 10 districts of Jowzjan were now controlled by the Taliban and the contest to control Sheberghan was under way.
In southern Helmand province, damage to civilian property aggravated the humanitarian crisis as shops caught fire in a week-long battle to control the capital of Lashkar Gah.
The United Nations this week said it was deeply concerned about the safety of tens of thousands of people trapped in the city.
“Violence has only escalated and there is no way to assess the damage in Lashkar Gah as both sides are locked in an intense ground battle… it is hard to even recover bodies by aid agencies,” a senior Western security official said in Kabul.
The Lashkar Gah office of aid group Action Against Hunger was hit by a bomb during fighting in the area on Thursday.
“Civilians find themselves in between warring parties. They are being displaced from their homes and are often the first victims of the conflict,” said Mike Bonke, Action Against Hunger’s country director in Afghanistan.