WASHINGTON / BALKH, AFGHANISTAN - Clashes between Taliban insurgents and the Islamic State (IS) militants have forcibly displaced thousands of civilians in Afghanistan's northern Jawzjan province.
"Most of these families are the residents of Qosh Tipa and Darzab districts. Continued fighting has forced them to flee their homes," Halima Sadaf, a member of Jawzjan provincial council, told VOA.
"The terrorists burned down a number of civilian houses to the ground," Sadaf added.
Qosh Tipa and Darzab are two of the most restive districts of the province where militant groups frequently launch attacks against the Afghan government targets and at times fight each other for control of territory.
Hafizullah Nodrat, another Jawzjan provincial council member, said militants prevent civilians from fleeing their homes.
"Taliban and IS fighters prevented a lot of families from escaping violence and fleeing to the capital city [Shberghan]," Nodrat said.
Members of the provincial council warned if government does not launch an operation to suppress the militants in the province, more civilians will suffer and potentially die in the hands of Taliban and IS militants.
Meanwhile, local government officials downplay the IS and Taliban threat and reject reports that large numbers of civilians have been displaced in the province due to continued fighting.
"A number of families were displaced last week due to fighting between the Taliban and IS in Darzab and Qosh Tipa, who went back to their villages," Mohammad Raza Ghafoori, spokesperson for the governor of Jawzjan province, told VOA.
However, Ghafoori did not rule out the possibility of Taliban and IS militants clashing again in the area.
Ghafoori said the government intends to launch a widespread military operation in the region aimed at cracking down on militant groups that pose a threat to the security of Jawzjan and its neighboring provinces.
Militants are reportedly active in neighboring Faryab and Sar-e-Pul provinces where continued clashes between rival militant groups and Afghan government forces also displaced hundreds of civilians from their homes, particularly in restive Qaysar and Ghormach districts of northern Faryab province.
The displaced civilians in all three northern provinces are facing dire living conditions without access to basic services like clean water and sanitation. Hundreds of families live out in the open in tents.
Aid and rights organizations have voiced concerns over the living conditions of the displaced civilians, particularly during the harsh winter season.
"We are very concerned because the weather is very cold and most of the IDPs are living in inappropriate places and the aid packages being distributed to these people are not sufficient," Sayed Mohammad Sami, a member of Afghanistan's Independent Human Rights Commission, told VOA.
Sami added that hundreds of children are among those displaced.
National Disaster Management Authority, a government body tasked with responding to natural disasters in the country, told local media that many IDPs have received the necessary winter aid packages.
However, IDPs complain of lack of transparency in the distribution process.
"People in charge of distribution are distributing aid packages to whom they personally know or someone who has contacts within the organizations," Zainuddin, a resident of Qosh Tipa, told RFE/RL Afghanistan service.
Government officials, however, reject the allegations and maintain that the government has been fair in its distribution of winter kits to displaced families across the country.
Islamic State in North Afghanistan
Initially based in southern parts of eastern Nangarhar province, IS's Khorasan branch, also known as ISIS-K, emerged in early 2015 in the mountainous areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan to cover the two states and "other nearby territories." The group has since been trying to expand and find inroads to other parts of the country, including northern Afghanistan.
As the Islamic State terror group is trying to expand from its traditional enclave of eastern Afghanistan to other parts of the country, Taliban insurgents are blocking them, sparking periodic and deadly clashes between both groups.
Experts believe Taliban insurgents are fighting IS militants because the Taliban wants to be the main armed opposition group fighting the Afghan government and its international allies.