Afghanistan's military plans to launch a major operation to stop the Islamic State group making inroads into the country's northern provinces, officials said Tuesday, after AFP reported that fighters including French nationals were present there.
"(The) ministry of defence is planning to launch an operation against Daesh in northern provinces of Sari Pul, Faryab and Jowzjan," defence ministry spokesman Dawlat Waziri told AFP, using the Arabic acronym for the Middle Eastern jihadist group.
"We know there are foreign fighters among them, but we will eliminate all of them regardless of their nationality," he said, without elaborating further.
On Sunday, AFP reported that French and Algerian fighters, some arriving from Syria, had joined the ranks of the Islamic State group in northern Afghanistan where the militants have established new bases.
European and Afghan local sources confirmed that French citizens were among the fighters in Darzab district of Jowzjan province, suggesting they may have links to Islamic State-Khorasan Province (IS-K), the group's franchise in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
It is the first time that the presence of French IS fighters has been recorded in Afghanistan, and comes as analysts suggested foreigners may be heading for the war-torn country after being driven out of Syria and Iraq.
"We have reports that more than 40 foreign Daesh fighters, mostly Uzbeks, are present in Darzab and Qushtepa districts. They are there to recruit locals and train them to become fighters," Mohammad Reza Ghafoori, a spokesman for the governor of Jowzjan, told AFP.
"The government is planning to launch an operation to clear the area from them soon," he said, also without giving further details.
When it first emerged in 2015, IS-K overran large parts of eastern Nangarhar and Kunar provinces, though initially its part in the Afghan conflict was overshadowed by the Taliban.
The jihadists have since spread north, including in Jowzjan on the border with Uzbekistan, and carried out multiple devastating attacks in the capital Kabul.