Kabul-Militants linked to ISIS jihadists abducted and killed around 30 civilians, including children, in central Afghanistan, officials said Wednesday, raising concerns about the group’s expanding presence beyond its eastern stronghold.
The killings occurred late Tuesday north of Firoz Koh, the capital of Ghor province, with the local government calling it a revenge attack after a local ISIS commander was gunned down.
ISIS, which controls territory across Syria and Iraq and is making steady inroads in Afghanistan, has so far not officially claimed responsibility for the attack.
“Our security forces with the help of local shepherds conducted an operation and killed a Daesh (ISIS) commander yesterday,” Ghor Governor Nasir Khazeh told AFP.
“Daesh fighters in retaliation abducted around 30 villagers, mostly shepherds. Their dead bodies were found this morning.”
Abdul Hameed Nateqi, a Ghor provincial council member, gave a similar account to AFP, adding that the assailants were Taliban renegades who had sworn allegiance to ISIS.
The U.N. put the death toll at 26, while condemning the “senseless and brutal killings”. It added that the fate of a number of other hostages remained unknown.
The devastating attack represents a major escalation for ISIS, which has so far largely been confined to the eastern province of Nangarhar where it is notorious for brutality including beheadings.
The killings also underscore Afghanistan’s unravelling security situation as the resurgent Taliban ramp up their 15-year insurgency against the Western-backed government.
ISIS fighters have been trying to expand their presence in Afghanistan, winning over sympathizers, recruiting followers and challenging the Taliban on their own turf, primarily in the country’s east.
In March Afghan President Ashraf Ghani announced that the militants had been defeated after local security forces claimed victory in a months-long operation against the group.
But ISIS militants have continued to launch deadly strikes in the country.
The Afghan government is currently in the middle of an operation, backed by NATO airstrikes, against ISIS in Nangarhar.
NATO recently said the group’s influence was waning as it steadily lost territory, with fighters largely confined to two or three districts in Nangarhar from around nine in January.
“Right now we see them (ISIS) very focused on trying to establish their caliphate… inside Afghanistan,” John Nicholson, the top U.S. and NATO commander in the country, told reporters on Sunday.
“Of course with our Afghan partners we have been able to reduce that territory significantly and inflict heavy casualties on them.”