| LASHKAR GAH Afghanistan
LASHKAR GAH Afghanistan After months of intense fighting in southern Afghanistan where hundreds of Taliban fighters have battered Afghan troops in daily attacks, the special forces commander in Helmand province is seeking a deal with the insurgents.
Helmand province is the source of about half of Afghanistan's opium and some areas have fallen under the control of drug dealers and the Taliban.
Hundreds of U.S. and British soldiers were killed and wounded there over years of fighting but now it is the Afghans who are in charge of security as most foreign troops prepare to withdraw from the country by the end of this year.
"Based on my contacts with Taliban and tribal elders I have already started talks," Afghan special forces commander General Asadullah Shirzad, told reporters on Thursday, referring to his efforts in the province's Sangin district.
"Now security is much better in Sangin but to have a peaceful province we need more time to talk."Shirzad declined to give details of his negotiations but said he hoped to extend talks across the province once calm had been restored in Sangin.
Taliban spokesman Qari Yousuf Ahmadi denied any negotiations with security forces in the province, saying "we do not have any plan to talk now".
The battle for Helmand contributes to a troubling security outlook for Afghanistan where the hardline Taliban, in power from 1996 to 2001, are seeking to oust foreign forces and set up an Islamist state.
In June, as many as 800 Taliban fighters were involved in some assaults on government offices and police outposts in Sangin. Afghan forces say they have killed 400 Taliban across Helmand since then.
The government does not provide figures for its casualties.
The deputy commander for the army corps stationed in three southern provinces including Helmand, General Ghulam Farooq Parwani, told Reuters his forces would continue fighting the Taliban, but he did not deny talks had started.
(Writing by Mirwais Harooni; Editing by Jessica Donati and Robert Birsel)