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KANDAHAR, Afghanistan – The Islamic State group, which has been building a presence in Afghanistan for more than a year, has established a recruitment and training camp in a restive southern province bordering Pakistan, Afghan officials said.
Last year, hundreds of insurgents fled to Afghanistan from neighboring Pakistan, where the military launched a campaign to clear militants from the lawless tribal regions in the country's north. Among them were members of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, who joined forces with local Taliban fighters to attack northern Afghan cities such as Kunduz, which was briefly overrun in September.
The Pakistani military campaign also caused around 400 families loyal to the Islamic State group to flee to Afghanistan, Afghan authorities said. The families, many of them Arabs and Chechens, settled in the southern province of Zabul, in the district of Khak-e-Afghan, a former Taliban stronghold with a history of militant violence that has made it a no-go area for Afghan security forces.
The long-term intentions of the IS loyalists in Khak-e-Afghan were initially unclear. Locals said they kept to themselves but appeared wealthy, purchasing expensive properties and never bargaining down prices in the bazaar.
Now officials say the IS operatives have established a headquarters in the district, and are actively recruiting and training locals to join the group as gunmen.
"They have a lot of money. People here are very poor, and that makes them very easy targets for these foreigners," said Atta Mohammad Haqbayan, the director of Zabul's provincial council. He said that he asked central authorities in Kabul for help to drive the IS operatives out of the province — "but no one is listening to us."
In late July, the Afghan military launched an offensive against IS in the east of the country, backed by U.S. forces and air strikes.
This week, the U.S. Department of Defense confirmed that the leader of IS in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Hafiz Saeed, was killed some weeks ago in an American drone strike in the eastern province of Nangarhar.
U.S. military officials have said that there are between 1,500 and 3,000 IS-linked militants in the eastern region, most of them former operatives for the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban groups. They have direct links with the leadership of IS in Iraq and Syria, and for some months earlier this year held control over a number of districts near the Pakistan border.
The commander of American and NATO forces in Afghanistan, U.S. Gen. John Nicholson, has said that dozens of IS commanders and hundreds of fighters have been killed since the Afghan military declared its offensive in late July. He said many insurgents were now fleeing to the south of the country. It was unclear if they were escaping to Zabul.
Afghan officials in Zabul say their requests for military action against IS in the south have gone unanswered. U.S. officials insist there is no substantial evidence to suggest that the Islamic State group is active in Zabul.
IS drew attention to its presence in Zabul last November, when the militants kidnapped and killed seven people from the ethnic Hazara group as fierce fighting raged between IS and local Taliban militants. The killing sparked widespread anger among the Hazara community, a Shiite Muslim group that has long faced discrimination, who organized a mass march to the presidential palace in Kabul.
Zabul's provincial police chief, Mirwais Noorzai, said the IS operatives in Khak-e-Afghan are well-equipped with satellite communications technology. They have set up camps for training new recruits, he said.
Haqbayan, the provincial council director, said local authorities "have proof they are linked with and are in constant contact with Daesh in Iraq and that they receive funding from them." He used an Arabic acronym to refer to the Islamic State group.
"They directly communicate with Daesh leaders and they are now spending a lot of money on building up the group," Haqbayan told The Associated Press. "It's time to take control of the situation and get rid of them. But if the government doesn't pay attention to them, then they will start fighting. And once they start fighting it could prove very difficult for our forces to defeat them."
The spokesman for U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, Brig. Gen. Charles Cleveland, said no evidence had been seen by U.S. military intelligence to support the reports of an Islamic State presence in Zabul, despite the accounts of Afghan officials.
Using the name the group goes by in Afghanistan, IS-Khorasan — a reference to a broad region of Central Asia that once included parts of Afghanistan — Cleveland told AP: "We believe IS-K is still primarily in two districts of southern Nangarhar, with a very small presence in Kunar province" on the eastern border.
IS had said that it aims to overrun the region formerly known as Khorasan, starting from a base in Nangarhar and then moving north toward Central Asia.
O'Donnell reported from Kabul, Afghanistan. Associated Press writer Tim Sullivan in Delhi contributed to this story.