By Jibran Ahmad and Josh Smith
PESHAWAR, Pakistan/KABUL (Reuters) – The leader of Islamic State’s branch in Afghanistan and Pakistan has been killed in a U.S. drone strike, the Afghan ambassador to Pakistan said on Friday, though the American military said it could not confirm that.
If true, the death of Hafiz Saeed Khan would strike a blow to efforts by Middle East-based Islamic State – also known as ISIS and Daesh – to expand its control over territory and its jihadist brand into Afghanistan and Pakistan.
It would also mark the second U.S. killing of a prominent militant in the region within months. In May, a U.S. drone killed Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour in a strike in Pakistan.
Islamic State this week took credit for an attack on a hospital that killed at least 74 people in the Pakistani city of Quetta. A Pakistani Taliban faction also claimed responsibility.
Khan has been reported dead before. Last year, Afghan intelligence agents claimed he had been killed, but the report was never confirmed.
On Friday, Afghan Ambassador Omar Zakhilwal told Reuters he had seen confirmation from Afghan security forces on Khan’s death.
“I can confirm that ISIS Khurasan (Afghanistan and Pakistan) leader Hafiz Saeed Khan along with his senior commanders and fighters died in a U.S. drone strike on July 26 in Kot district of Afghanistan’s Nangharhar province,” he said.
U.S. military spokesman Colonel Michael Lawhorn said American forces in Afghanistan “are aware of those reports and we are looking into it” but have not yet confirmed Khan’s death.
Islamic State also claimed responsibility for an attack on a rally in Kabul in July, which killed more than 80 people.
Afghan forces, backed by the American military, killed an estimated 300 Islamic State fighters in an operation mounted two weeks ago, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan General John Nicholson said on Wednesday, calling it a severe blow to the group.
(Writing by Kay Johnson; Editing by Louise Ireland)