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The Taliban’s rapid territorial gains in Afghanistan’s rural areas over the last few months caught many off guard, particularly the Afghan government.

While the pace of that blitz has slowed, insurgent fighters have turned their attention to urban centres, penetrating deep into three key provincial capitals, which many fear could fall into Taliban control.

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Fighting has been particularly heavy inside the city of Herat, near the western border with Iran, Lashkar Gah, capital of Helmand province in the southwest, and Kandahar in the south.

Three Taliban commanders told Reuters they had switched strategy from targeting rural areas to attacking provincial cities, in response to increased US air strikes after the United States said it was ending its longest war.

An Afghan military spokesman said this week an emergency had been declared in Lashkar Gah and government forces were getting reinforcements and US air support. “Special forces have been sent to the area. They are in good morale,” armed forces spokesman General Ajmal Omar Shinwari told Reuters.

The loss of Lashkar Gah would be a huge blow for the government, which has pledged to defend strategic centres after losing many rural districts to the Taliban in recent months.

Russia boosts arms supplies to Central Asia

Meanwhile, Russia has increased arms and military hardware supplies to Uzbekistan and Tajikistan amid fighting in Afghanistan, Interfax news agency quoted Russian military chief of staff Valery Gerasimov as saying on Thursday.

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Gerasimov, who was in Tashkent to attend joint Uzbek-Russian military drills near the Afghan border, provided no details such as what arms were being supplied.

Russia is also carrying out drills in Tajikistan, another former Soviet republic bordering Afghanistan, this week. For the Uzbek exercise, Moscow said on Thursday it would even deploy four strategic bombers.

The security situation in Afghanistan has rapidly deteriorated since US-led forces began a withdrawal due to be completed by September, prompting a Taliban insurgent offensive that has made significant territorial gains.

First resettled Afghan refugees and families reach Canada

The first group of Afghan interpreters, embassy staff and families that Canada is resettling amid threats of Taliban reprisals have arrived, immigration minister Marco Mendicino said on Thursday.

Many Afghans who worked with Canada and other NATO countries fear Taliban violence as US forces depart. Canada announced last month that it would resettle the Afghans amid what it called a dynamic and deteriorating situation.

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“Today brings with it a sense of hope, optimism and a sigh of relief for those first Afghan refugees who touched down last night,” Mendicino told a news conference.

Canada will not announce the names of the people involved or where they will be resettled, he said. Ottawa says several thousand people will be eligible.

Washington said this week that thousands more Afghans who may be Taliban targets due to their US affiliations will have the opportunity to resettle as refugees.

The Taliban have stepped up their campaign to defeat the US-backed government since April as foreign forces complete their withdrawal after 20 years of war.

Canada’s combat mission in Afghanistan ended a decade ago, after which the country resettled about 800 Afghans who had worked for the country as interpreters or in other roles.

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