Herat (Afghanistan): Gunmen in the remote central-western Afghan province of Ghor rounded up dozens of civilians and executed them on Wednesday in an attack that officials blamed on IS militants retaliating for the death of one of their commanders.
If confirmed as the work of IS, it would mark a major departure for the radical group, which has hitherto been largely confined to the eastern province of Nangarhar since its appearance in Afghanistan at the end of 2014.
However there was no independent verification and the Taliban, who denied responsibility, said the killings appeared to have been prompted by ethnic rivalries fuelled by a clash over sheep-stealing.
The killings in any case underlined the lack of security across Afghanistan, prompted not just by the Taliban insurgency and IS violence but by a wider breakdown in law and order as government control has slipped.
Government security forces have long struggled to exert control in Ghor, a poor and mountainous province with sharp ethnic and tribal divisions and large numbers of illegal armed groups that operate with impunity.
The dead appear to have been Kuchi nomads and estimates of their number varied, with governor's spokesman Abdul Hai Khatibi putting the total at about 30, the Taliban saying 36 and some local people saying it was as high as 42.
"Afghan police killed a Daesh (IS) commander in Ghor province during an operation yesterday but Daesh (IS) fighters abducted some 30 civilians from near the provincial capital and shot them all dead in revenge," Khatibi said, using a name commonly given to IS.
He said the killings followed a militant attack on Tuesday near Feroz Koh, the capital of the central western province.
Hundreds of people gathered in the town as bodies were brought in and prepared for burial and there were angry scenes as residents demanded government action.
"Our demand to the local and central government is to bombard and destroy the terrorist nests in this province," said protester Haji Abdul Samad.
"If the government doesn't pay attention to our civil movements, then we will use the power of our youth to destroy the terrorist nests."
Amnesty International condemned the killings as a "horrendous crime" and called for an immediate investigation by the government.
Meanwhile, Taliban fighters on Wednesday cut the highway linking the Afghan capital to the southern city of Kandahar, following an attack on the main town of Wardak province to the west of Kabul, officials said.
The attack on Maidan Shahr, about 45 km (28 miles) from the capital, follows a series of assaults on provincial capitals in recent months as Taliban militants step up their insurgency aimed at toppling the Western-backed government in Kabul.
Fighting was continuing just outside the town, and the main highway was blocked, said Abdul Rahman Mangal, a spokesman for the provincial governor.
Government buildings in the town were under attack and reinforcements had been ambushed, the Taliban said in a statement, warning residents to stay clear of the fighting.
Last month, after pushing into the city of Tarin Kot, in the central Afghan province of Uruzgan, fighters also managed to get into Kunduz in the north and Lashkar Gah, the capital of southern Helmand province, threatening to overrun security forces.