Authorities in an eastern province of Afghanistan say a U.S. drone strike against a group of suspected Islamic State militants has killed at least 18 people, including civilians.
Local police commander Mohammad Ali told VOA Wednesday that several non-combatants were also among those wounded in the pre-dawn attack in the Achin district of the province of Nangarhar, which borders Pakistan.
Using the Arabic acronym for IS, the police officer said two important Daesh commanders were among the militant casualties.
US confirms airstrike
A U.S. military spokesman, Brigadier General Charles Cleveland, confirmed to VOA that “U.S. forces did conduct one counterterrorism airstrike in the area on Wednesday. But he would not discuss further details for “operational security reasons.”
Cleveland reiterated that the U.S. military takes all allegations of civilian casualties “very seriously.”
“We are aware of some claims of Afghan casualties, and are currently reviewing all materials related to this strike. We are continuing to look into these allegations and will provide additional information as appropriate,” he said.
Some Afghan officials told local media the drone hit the residence of a Public Health Department officer who recently returned from the annual pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia.
Friends and relatives, as well as IS militants, had gathered to welcome and congratulate him on performing the religious ritual when missiles hit the compound.
IS regaining ground
The latest U.S airstrike came as tribal elders and officials recently warned IS fighters have returned and regained control of some of their former strongholds in the area after retreating to mountain hideouts in the face of weeks of major Afghan security operations.
Afghanistan's National Army soldier stands guard in his vehicle in Camp Khogyani in Nangarhar province, east of Kabul, Afghanistan.
Achin is among the four districts in Nangarhar where loyalists of the Middle East-based terrorist group have set up bases.
The Islamic State emerged early last year in the region in a bid to establish what it identified as its “Khorasan” province comprising Afghanistan, Pakistan and parts of Iran.
But the effort has largely failed in the face of violent challenges posed by the rival Afghan Taliban, a concerted campaign of U.S. counterterrorism strikes as well as anti-IS Afghan security operations.
The U.S. military say its counter-IS strikes this year have eliminated 12 top leaders, including its regional chief, Hafiz Sadeed Khan.
The number of IS fighters has also been reduced to around 1,300 from an estimated several thousands, limiting their influence to four districts of Nangarhar compared to ten districts of the province in 2015, according to General John Nicholson, commander of U.S.-led international forces in Afghanistan.
He said that mostly ethnic Pashtun militants from Pakistan's Orakzai tribal agency filled IS ranks after they abandoned allegiance to the so-called Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, or TTP, waging a deadly insurgency in the neighboring country.