MAZAR-I-SHARIF, Afghanistan: More than 150 Islamic State fighters surrendered in Afghanistan on Wednesday, Afghan officials said, a move which they and the Taliban hailed as the end of the extremist group in the north of the country.
The apparent IS capitulation comes after weeks of intense fighting between IS and the Taliban in Jowzjan province in the north, and continuing pressure from Afghan and US forces.
It also came as the Afghan army took over security in the eastern city of Jalalabad, capital of Nangarhar province which is an IS stronghold, after a wave of attacks mostly claimed by the group.
In Jowzjan, officials described the surrender as a turning point.
“Their fighters have surrendered in the past, but this time it is more important because the Daesh leader and deputy surrendered with more than 150 fighters all at once,” Mohammad Hanif Rezaee, spokesman for the army’s 209 Corps in the north, told AFP, using an Arabic acronym for IS.
Rezaee said 30 women and children had also handed themselves in to Afghan authorities.
“With this, the Daesh chapter is going to be closed in the north,” he added.
IS has a relatively small but potent presence in Afghanistan, mainly in the eastern province of Nangarhar but more recently in Jowzjan.
The group has fought turf wars with the much larger Taliban since emerging in Afghanistan in 2014. Estimates of their numbers in the country run as high as around 2,000.
Until a few weeks ago there had been around 500 IS fighters in the Darzab and Qush Tepa districts of Jowzjan, provincial governor Lutfullah Azizi has said.
But the Taliban stepped up fighting with the group there after an IS attack on their fighters last month killed at least 15 people, Azizi said.
The Taliban took credit for the surrender announced by Afghan officials on Wednesday, saying it had “cleared” the north of IS fighters.
It claimed it had captured 130, wounded more than 100 and killed 153.
– Defending Jalalabad –
The development comes as the Afghan army took over security in Jalalabad, with more checkpoints set up and special forces conducting operations a day after militants stormed a government department in the city and killed 15 people.
Among those killed was a local employee of the International Organization for Migration and a local staff member of the International Rescue Committee, both foreign agencies said in statements.
No group has yet claimed responsibility for the attack but IS is widely suspected of carrying it out.
“To provide better security for the people, the national army is leading the security in the city,” Attaullah Khogyani, spokesman for the governor of Nangarhar province, told AFP.
The army will spearhead efforts “to contain the emergency situation” for a week, Khogyani said.
Eventually, police and soldiers “will join hands to secure the city”, he added, but declined to give further details.
Mohammad Ali, a soldier deployed from neighbouring Kunar province, told AFP at a checkpoint that he and his colleagues would “defend this city until the death”.
The Taliban has not claimed a major attack in a city for weeks as it comes under increased pressure to agree to peace talks with the Afghan government.
But IS has carried out multiple attacks in Jalalabad and the capital Kabul in recent months, targeting everything from government ministries to a midwife training centre.
Last month an IS suicide bomber blew himself up near Kabul international airport, killing 23 people including AFP driver Mohammad Akhtar.
The increased attacks come as US and Afghan forces intensify ground and air offensives against IS, and the Taliban step up their turf war with the group.
“IS has come under intense pressure… they have lost a lot of men,” said former general Hadi Khalid, now a military analyst.
“The only strategy that can keep them going is to attack soft targets and that is what they have been doing recently.”
However Borhan Osman, a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group, cautioned that IS attacks on soft targets were not necessarily the result of recent losses on the battlefield.
“Attacking lightly defended targets has been part of IS-KP’s modus operandi from the outset,” he told AFP.