The ISIS terrorist group claimed it has seized Osama bin Laden’s infamous Tora Bora mountain hideout in eastern Afghanistan, saying its signature black flag was flying over the hulking mountain range.
ISIS announced its alleged capture in an audio recording that was broadcast on the militants’ radio station in the Pashto language late on Wednesday. It also said ISIS has taken over several districts and urged villagers who fled the fighting to return to their homes and stay indoors.
The Taliban, however, dismissed the claim on Thursday, saying they were still in control of the cave complex that once housed the former al-Qaida leader.
The remote region in Nangarhar province was most famously used by bin Laden in late 2001, in a bid to hold out against the US troops and Afghan allies who toppled the Taliban regime.
Now Afghan officials say ISIS militants have seized cave complexes in Tora Bora, after days of fighting against Taliban who had been based there.
“Those areas around Tora Bora were a Taliban stronghold, but now Daesh militants captured them during fighting,” the police commander in the area, Shah Wali, told Reuters, using an Arabic term for ISIS.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid acknowledged that ISIS forces had managed to capture several villages, but he denied that they had seized Tora Bora.
General John Nicholson, the top US commander in Afghanistan, has vowed to defeat ISIS there this year, and in April used one of the largest conventional bombs ever dropped in combat to target a cave complex used by ISIS in the nearby district of Achin.
“After Achin, Daesh was looking for a second stronghold and now they have it,” Wali said.
Abu Omar Khorasani, an ISIS commander in Afghanistan, told Reuters that his fighters had seized Tora Bora and were also battling government troops, who are backed by US ground troops and aircraft.
“We are in Tora Bora but this is not the end,” Khorasani said. “The plan is to take more territory from the government and the Taliban.”
The fighting has sent hundreds of families fleeing, said Malek Tor, a tribal elder who put the number of ISIS fighters in the area in the hundreds.
Government forces have launched new operations targeting ISIS, but more fighters are being recruited or crossing the border from Pakistan, said Attahullah Khogyani, spokesman for the Nangarhar governor’s office.
“You kill one Daesh fighter and 10 more come from the border or are recruited here,” he said.
While the United States estimates there are about 800 ISIS fighters in Afghanistan, mostly restricted to the eastern Nangarhar province, other estimates say their ranks also include thousands of battle-hardened Uzbek militants.
Last week Russia announced it was reinforcing two of its bases in Central Asia, in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, with its newest weapons because of fears of a “spill-over of terrorist activities from Afghanistan” by the Afghan ISIS affiliate.
“The (ISIS) group’s strategy to establish an Islamic caliphate poses a threat not only to Afghanistan but also to the neighboring countries,” Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said.