Ultra-radical Islamic State (IS) militants have joined a ragging battle between rival Taliban factions in southern Afghanistan that has seen scores of fighters killed in recent days.
The fighting is currently concentrated in Arghandab, Khak-e Afghan, and Dai Chopan -- three remote districts in southern Zabul Province.
Ghulam Jilani Farahi, a deputy police chief in Zabul, said 60 IS fighters and 15 Taliban have been killed in Zabul so far.
Earlier on November 8, Gul Islam Sayal, spokesman for the governor of Zabul, said at least 47 members of the rival factions had been killed in the past three days of fighting. He said another 53 members of the rival groups had been wounded.
Afghan officials say they are seeing an increasing presence of IS. Mohmand Nostrayar, governor of the Arghandab district of Zabul Province, said fighters in a breakaway Taliban faction led by Mullah Mohammad Rasul have been joined by IS militants.
Sayal added that at least 18 from Rasul's faction were captured by the main Taliban faction headed by Akhtar Mohammad Mansur.
A Taliban commander loyal to Mansur also confirmed the participation of IS fighters. The commander, who was not identified by name, told the Associated Press on November 8 that Rasul's faction has joined forces with IS gunmen because it doesn't have enough fighters.
The fighting follows months of a tense standoff between Mansur supporters and followers of Mansoor Dadullah, the younger brother of late Taliban commander Mullah Dadullah.
Last week, he joined Rasul, a former Taliban provincial governor, to establish their own "Islamic Emirate" -- the formal name for the Afghan Taliban. Rasul was declared the "supreme leader," and Dadullah was appointed as one of his top deputies.
The two commanders and several former members of the Taliban's Pakistan-based leadership council have been unhappy over Mansur's succession of Mullah Mohammad Omar. The death of the Taliban’s founding leader was announced in July more than two years after his death in April 2013.
While Mansur has opposed the emergence of IS in Afghanistan and his supporters have fought against the group in eastern Afghanistan, Rasul has shown more willingness to work with IS.
On November 7, Rasul told a rally in Afghanistan’s western province of Herat that IS fighters were "brothers" but his faction would not let them into Afghanistan.
In a related development, Zabul's deputy police chief Farahi said IS killed seven people they had kidnapped last month.
"Daesh fighters brutally killed these people, and their dead bodies have been carried to Shah Joi district hospital [in Zabul]," Farahi said. Daesh is the Arabic name for IS.
Since announcing the formation of its Afghanistan chapter last year, IS militants have been trying to make inroads into parts of eastern and southern Afghanistan.
By attracting disenchanted members of the Taliban, IS threatens to replace the Taliban as the dominant insurgent organization. Their improved finances and ascendency in Syria and Iraq are also attracting Central Asian fighters to their fold in Afghanistan.
With reporting by AP and Reuters