KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (AP) — A spokesman for a breakaway Taliban faction on Saturday denied reports that a senior figure in the group was killed battling rival insurgents.
Mullah Mansoor Dadullah was "seriously wounded" but still alive, spokesman Manan Niazi said, without providing further details. He said he was relying on battlefield reports from the Khak-e-Afghan district of the southern Zabul province, where rival Taliban groups have been fighting for a week.
Officials in Zabul said earlier that Dadullah had been killed in an ambush Wednesday, possibly by one of his bodyguards.
Dadullah is deputy leader of a dissident Taliban faction set up on Nov. 1 with the election of Mullah Mohammad Rasool as its leader. It's unclear how much support the group has. This is the first time the insurgents have publicly split.
The breakaway faction opposes Mullah Akhtar Mansoor, who took over in August after the announcement of the death of Taliban founder Mullah Mohammad Omar. Mansoor has claimed widespread backing among Taliban leaders based in Pakistan and on the battlefield, and took credit for the Taliban's brief capture of the northern city of Kunduz in September.
Niazi said Dadullah helped broker an alliance between their faction and local Islamic State militants, who have a growing presence in Afghanistan, notably in Zabul and the eastern Nangarhar province. He said disgruntled Taliban fighters were joining IS because they reject Mansoor's leadership.
"Until our group was formed, they had no option but to join with Daesh," Niazi said, referring to the IS group by its Arabic acronym. "Once we were established they said they would follow us." He said Rasool's faction would prevent IS from establishing a foothold in the country by absorbing such fighters.
Niazi said Akmal Ghazi, a commander in the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan who has pledged loyalty to the Islamic State, was also fighting alongside the breakaway faction, and denied reports he had been killed.
Elsewhere in Afghanistan, a lawmaker said the main Taliban had captured 90 percent of the Sangin district, a major poppy-producing region in the southern Helmand province, long an insurgent stronghold.
Hashim Popal said more than 60 soldiers had defected to the Taliban and accused the military of doing little to defend the district.
Taliban spokesman Qari Yousuf Ahmadi said the insurgents had "almost captured the entire area and soon will get the remaining portion."
Omar Zwak, spokesman for the governor of Helmand, said eight soldiers had been killed in Sangin, and that reinforcements were on their way.
Twenty of the missing soldiers had returned to their barracks, he said, but the remainder of the 65 said to have joined the insurgency were still unaccounted for.