Airstrike kills leading IS commander in Afghanistan
A leading commander in Afghanistan's Islamic State group has been killed in an airstrike, officials said Saturday, as Afghan and NATO forces attempt to strangle the militants.
Qari Hekmat was the head of IS' Afghan group in the northern province of Jowzjan, which has become the militants' stronghold after coming under sustained pressure in the eastern province of Nangarhar, close to the Pakistan border.
Hekmat was described by the defence ministry as "one of the key figures" for IS in northern Afghanistan and responsible for many "deadly terrorist attacks".
Among them were two deadly attacks on Shia mosques in the capital Kabul and Herat in the west of the country.
These and previous attacks on Afghanistan's Shia population marked a brutal new strand of terrorism in the country aimed at igniting sectarian strife.
The Taliban have mainly focused its attacks on Afghan security and coalition forces, foreigners and government strongholds.
Hekmat's death is a "big blow" for IS in northern Afghanistan, Jowzjan provincial police chief Faqir Mohammad Jawzjani said.
"He was the founder of Daesh [IS] in northern Afghanistan and had recruited fighters," Jawzjani said.
His replacement is Mawlawi Habib-ul-Rahman, the defence ministry said.
Provincial governor Lutfullah Azizi confirmed to AFP that Hekmat had been killed, but said US forces carried out the airstrike.
"Our intelligence sources have identified his body. His death will affect the recruitment of Daesh [IS] and disperse IS fighters in Afghanistan's north," Azizi said.
Afghan and NATO forces have stepped up their attacks on against IS fighters in Jowzjan in recent months.
There have been reports of French and Algerian fighters - some arriving from Syria - have joined IS in Afghanistan.
Afghan forces caught the group's "head facilitator of foreign forces" last January.
Two months later and his two successors were killed in a US airstrike, NATO's Resolute Support mission said previously.
IS emerged in 2014 when NATO forces began their withdrawal from Afghanistan, after entering in 2001.
Despite being vastly outnumbered by the Taliban, IS has claimed responsibility for devastating attacks in Kabul and elsewhere in the country.
IS is believed to be aided by the Taliban's most brutal wing, the Haqqani Network.