By Abdul Qadir Sediqi and Ahmad Sultan
KABUL (Reuters) – Afghan government forces have launched attacks in a bid to clear rival militants who have been battling each other for territory near the Pakistan border in fighting that has forced thousands of villagers from their homes, officials said on Tuesday.
Taliban and Islamic State militants have been fighting for more than a week in the eastern border province of Nangarhar, since Islamic State fighters seized six villages in an area where the mineral talc is mined.
There has been no comment from Islamic State or information about casualties it has sustained in the clashes, some of the heaviest between the rival Islamist factions over the past year.
The Taliban said in a statement on Tuesday that Afghan soldiers backed by U.S. forces had killed seven civilians in raids in Nangarhar, decrying their “ruthless savagery”. The statement did not give details about the continuing clashes.
Late on Monday, Afghan government forces launched attacks including air strikes to push the militants out of the area, officials said.
The main government intelligence agency, the National Directorate of Security, said in a statement that 22 Islamic State fighters had been killed and two of their weapons caches destroyed.
The provincial governor’s spokesman, Ataullah Khogyani, said that while Monday night’s attacks were aimed at “eliminating” Islamic State in the area, the government wanted to clear out the Taliban too.
“The government is fighting both militant groups,” Khogyani said.
Sohrab Qaderi, a provincial council member in Nangarhar, said more than 9,000 families had been displaced by the clashes between the militant groups.
Qaderi also said the government strikes did not appear to have ended the fighting between them, and that some villagers’ homes had been damaged in the air strikes.
Nangarhar province has large deposits of talc and other minerals such as chromite and marble, and sits on major smuggling routes into Pakistan.
Illegal mining of talc, used in products ranging from paint to baby powder, is a major source of revenue for insurgents in Nangarhar, where Islamic State has its stronghold.
Islamic State fighters first appeared in eastern Afghanistan in around 2014 and have battled the Taliban as well as government and foreign forces. The U.S. military estimates there are about 2,000 Islamic State fighters in Afghanistan.
(Writing by Rupam Jain; Editing by Robert Birsel and Catherine Evans)