KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani on Monday condemned the gruesome slayings of seven members of an ethnic Shiite minority abducted in a southeastern province where rival Taliban factions are fighting one another.
The headless bodies of four men, two women and a child — all members of the Hazara minority — were found late on Saturday in the Arghandab district of Zabul province, which borders Pakistan.
Zabul provincial governor Mohammad Anwar Ishaqzai has blamed the Islamic State group for the abductions and the killings. He said the victims had been kidnapped in neighboring Ghazni province over the past six months.
Ghani’s office said he was “profoundly saddened” by the killings and would convene a security meeting Tuesday on the case.
Zabul has been the scene of deadly clashes between rival Taliban factions in recent days, with a new splinter group believed to have been boosted by followers of an Islamic State affiliate, said to have a presence in Zabul.
Ishaqzai, the provincial governor, said three days of fighting there have left between 60 and 70 dead on both sides. His spokesman, Gul Islam Sayal said earlier that at least 18 gunmen from the breakaway Taliban faction were captured by the other side.
The fighting was especially fierce in Arghandab district, though a brief ceasefire was agreed to early Monday to gather the dead and wounded.
The clashes come after several senior Taliban figures broke from the main insurgent group and on Nov. 1 elected Mullah Mohammad Rasool, formerly a provincial governor under the Taliban’s 1996-2001 regime, as the insurgents’ “supreme leader.”
The split highlights the deep divisions that have become apparent at the top of the Taliban since the middle of this year.
Rasool’s faction opposes Mullah Akhtar Mansoor, who assumed power after the announcement of the death of Taliban founder Mullah Mohammad Omar this summer. Mullah Omar is said to have been dead for more than two years.
It’s unclear how much support Rasool’s new group has. By naming himself ‘supreme leader” Rasool has thrown a direct challenge to both Mansoor, who also assumed the title, and to the Islamic State leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, whose followers have captured a third of both Iraq and Syria.
Afghan officials have said that up to 400 families loyal to IS began settling in Zabul earlier this year. The extremist group also controls a number of districts in the eastern Nangarhar province, bordering Pakistan.
Arghandab governor Mohmand Nosratyar said that among those captured on the battlefield in the district was a brother of Mullah Mansoor Dadullah, one of Rasool’s deputies. He had no further details.
Associated Press writers Humayoon Babur in Kabul and Mirwais Khan in Kandahar contributed to this story.