KABUL — Taliban fighters penetrated the capital of Helmand province for the first time Monday, killing at least 14 people in a suicide bombing and related attacks.
It was their most successful assault to date on the strategic southern city and opium trade center that the insurgents have been trying to capture for months.
Government forces pushed them out after several hours, and officials declared the situation under control, but by then some panicked residents had fled the beleaguered city, and the psychological damage had been done.
The Taliban had not raised their flag over Lashkar Gah, but they had come awfully close.
Monday’s ground assault and bombing came two days after General John Nicholson, the top US and NATO military commander in Afghanistan, flew from Kabul to Lashkar Gah and promised worried local leaders that international forces would do everything possible to make sure the city does not collapse.
‘‘We are with you and we will stay with you,’’ Nicholson told the group gathered inside a police compound, adding that Western nations had recently pledged new military and economic support to Afghanistan ‘‘because we believe in you.’’ Even if the Taliban keep trying to attack, he vowed, ‘‘Lashkar Gah will not fall.’’
To the elders who gathered anxiously Saturday, Monday’s attack came as no surprise.
The Taliban already controlled three-quarters of the province, and since mid-September they had launched a new offensive, harrying the edges of the capital while overrunning several district centers and attacking security checkposts.