Afghan officials say at least 32 fighters affiliated with the Islamic State have been killed in a new offensive in the southern province of Zabul.
Provincial security chief Ghulam Sakhi Rogh Lewanai told reporters that the operation, aimed at rescuing scores of kidnapped Shi'ite men, began in the early morning on March 3 and has targeted several villages in Zabul's Khak-e Afghan district close to the Pakistani border.
"In one of the villages we killed 26 militants and six militants in another. All of them were associated with Daesh (Islamic State)," he said. "We also took weapons and an explosive vest into our possession. Our ground forces were also helped by our air force."
According to Lewanai, Afghan forces have so far not sustained any casualties and there were no reports of civilians being harmed in the fighting.
However, other militants, who likewise declared their affiliation with IS, rejected the government's claims. A caller who refused to give his name but said he represented IS fighters told Radio Free Afghanistan that only seven of his comrades were killed while three more were injured. He said their fighters are offering stiff resistance to the government forces.
Lewanai did not elaborate on the fate of some 30 Afghan Shi'ite Muslims who were abducted from two buses in Zabul on February 23. Last week, Afghan officials had vowed to launch an offensive to recover them.
The men, members of Hazara minority ethnic group, had returned from exile in Iran and were traveling from the western city of Herat to the capital, Kabul.
Eyewitnesses said their kidnappers wore black clothing and black masks and spoke in a foreign language.
While no group claimed responsibility for the mass abduction, Zabul's officials were adamant that IS was responsible because of its strong anti-Shi'a agenda.
Abubakar Siddique wrote this report based on reporting by Sayed Shah Saqeem and Mohammad Sadiq Rashtinai from Ghazni and Kandahar in Afghanistan.