KABUL, Afghanistan (AFP) — The Taliban said on Monday that it had destroyed an Islamic State cell in the Afghan capital, hours after a suspected IS attack on a mosque killed five people.
After overrunning Kabul seven weeks ago, the hardline Taliban has set up an interim Afghan government, but still faces attacks from the regional branch of the Islamic State.
The Taliban’s chief spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said fighters carried out the operation in the north of Kabul on Sunday evening.
“As a result of the operation, which was very decisive and successful, the IS center was completely destroyed and all the IS members in it were killed,” Mujahid said on Twitter.
Witnesses and AFP journalists heard blasts and gunfire in the capital at the time of the raid, and images posted to social media showed a large explosion and a fire at the scene.
Kabul resident and government employee Abdul Rahaman told AFP that a “large number” of Taliban special forces attacked at least three houses in his neighborhood.
“The fighting continued for several hours,” he said, adding that the sound of weapons kept him awake all night. “They said they were after Daesh [IS] fighters in the area,” Rahman said. “I don’t know how many were killed or arrested but the fighting was intense.”
At the scene on Monday, AFP saw several Taliban gunmen standing guard, denying people access down the road to the property. Police pickup trucks could be seen driving towards the site, one of which came back laden with household items including furniture, a carpet and kitchen appliances.
The operation took place within hours of a deadly attack targeting a prayer ceremony at the Eid Gah mosque in memory of Taliban spokesman Mujahid’s mother, who died last week.
A government cultural commission official, who asked not to be named, told AFP that five people died and 11 were wounded in the attack, adding that the casualties included both civilians and Taliban members.
“We have also arrested three people in connection with the blast,” he said.
According to the official, the device was placed at the entrance to the mosque and detonated as mourners were leaving after offering condolences to Mujahid and his family.
A witness at the mosque, who asked not to be identified, told AFP that Sunday’s attack at the entrance was carried out by a single suicide bomber.
Just outside the eastern gate, a dark patch was visible on the ground where the explosion took place and bullet holes could be seen in a wall.
The witness said a group of Taliban members — including senior figures — inside the mosque grounds came under fire after the blast, taking two casualties. He added that two Taliban units mistakenly opened fire on each other in the confusion following the explosion, but Interior Ministry spokesman Qari Sayed Khosti denied there had been any gunfire.
“A suicide bomber detonated his explosives among the crowd, killing three people and wounding a dozen,” he said.
Trails of blood into the mosque, as well as two red pools where the witness said the injured fighters were treated inside, were seen by AFP reporters on Monday.
On Monday, Mujahid told AFP that an investigation was still ongoing but “initial information suggests that Daesh [IS]-linked groups may have carried out the attack.”
The Taliban and the Afghanistan branch of IS — known as the Islamic State-Khorasan Province, or IS-K — are both hardline Sunni Islamist militant groups. But they differ on the issues of religion and strategy, which has led to bloody fighting between the two.
The United Nations in Afghanistan said it condemned Sunday’s mosque attack.