Kabul - More than 800 Taliban insurgents have launched a major offensive in southern Afghanistan to try to gain territory recently vacated by US troops, officials said on Wednesday, with 40 civilians killed in five days of fighting.

About 100 Taliban have been killed, according to the interior ministry, in clashes that erupted as Afghanistan wrestled with a political crisis over alleged fraud in the June 14 election to choose a successor to President Hamid Karzai.

Local officials in Helmand province said that 800 militants were involved in attacks centred on the Sangin district of Helmand province, a hotbed of fighting during the 13-year insurgency.

The last US troops pulled out of Sangin only last month, handing over their remaining bases to Afghan soldiers and police who have now taken over responsibility for tackling the fierce Taliban insurgency.

“About 800 fighters started to storm four districts of Helmand last Thursday night,” Helmand provincial governor spokesman Omar Zwak told AFP.

“At least 21 Afghan forces have died and close to 40 civilians were killed.”

A government official in Kabul confirmed the figure of 800 Taliban.

Zwak said reinforcements had been sent to repel the attacks in Sangin, Nowzad, Kajaki and Musa Qala districts, where 2 000 families have fled the violence.

Interior ministry spokesman Siddiq Siddiqi told reporters: “There was a major attack by the Taliban and their supporters.

“We are reinforcing Afghan national security forces and have suffered no major loss of territory. About 100 Taliban have been killed so far.” - AFP