KABUL: Two drone strikes targeted militants loyal to Islamic State in Afghanistan on Tuesday, killing between 25 and 49 insurgents, according to differing estimates by Afghan and foreign officials.
An increasing number of militants are pledging allegiance to the Islamic State in Afghanistan, making them a target of deadly strikes there by the US unmanned aircraft. The Islamic State (IS) group, also known by its Arabic acronym Daesh, has never formally acknowledged having a presence in Afghanistan but fears are growing that it is making inroads in the country.
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Monday’s strikes took place in restive Achin district of Nangarhar province, on the border with Pakistan, where local media have reported battles between Taliban insurgents and IS supporters in recent weeks.
A spokesperson for the NATO mission in Afghanistan confirmed US forces carried out two "precision strikes... against individuals threatening the force" but did not give details of who was targeted.
A total of 49 militants were killed in the strikes in the eastern province of Nangarhar, which targeted the village of Mamd Dara in Achin district, where the fighters routinely held gatherings, a spokesperson for the governor said.
"The first drone strike took place at 12 am on Monday... the second one happened at 2 pm," said Ahmad Zia Abdulzai.
A spokesperson for the National Directorate of Security (NDS), the Afghan spy agency, claimed the IS group's "number two" commander in Afghanistan was killed in an air strike in Achin, though he did not specify whether it was a drone strike.
However, the foreign official, who asked not to be named in order to be able to speak freely, said the number of dead was believed to be closer to 25.
One of the most high profile figures to have been targeted in drone strikes so far was former Guantanamo Bay detainee Mullah Abdul Rauf, who had defected to Islamic State and was killed by a strike in southern Helmand province in February.
IS has so far not announced its presence in Afghanistan, nor identified its commanders. There was also no confirmation of the NDS's claim.
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Afghan officials say IS's presence in the country is so far limited to small groups and factions that have split from the Taliban. The extent of their links to the group's operations in Syria and Iraq, and the extent of the support they receive, is extremely unclear.
IS has grabbed large areas of Syria and Iraq in a brutal campaign but last month the Pentagon said the group's presence in Afghanistan was still "in the initial exploratory phase".
But the potential for IS to attract members has clearly not been lost on the Taliban, who last month warned the Middle East group's leader against waging a parallel insurgency in Afghanistan.
On Monday, militant commander and former Afghan Prime Minister Gulbaddin Hekmatyar vowed allegiance to IS, inviting it to fight against the Afghan Taliban.