KABUL, Afghanistan — The Islamic State group says it has captured Tora Bora, a mountain hideout in Afghanistan once used by Osama bin Laden, but the Taliban on Thursday dismissed the claim, saying they were still in control of the cave complex.
ISIS said its black flag was flying over the area, in a message broadcast late Wednesday on the militants' Radio Khilafat station. The group said it had seized several districts and urged villagers who fled the fighting to return to their homes and stay in place.
The Tora Bora mountains hide a warren of caves in which bin Laden and other al-Qaida militants hid from U.S.-led coalition forces in 2001 after the Taliban fled Kabul.
According to testimony from al-Qaida captives in the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, bin Laden fled from Tora Bora to Afghanistan's northeastern Kunar province before crossing the border into Pakistan. He was killed in a 2011 raid by U.S. Navy SEALs in the Pakistani town of Abbottabad.
Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid told The Associated Press in a telephone interview that Taliban fighters drove ISIS from the parts of Tora Bora that it had seized, adding that more than 30 ISIS militants were killed in the fighting. He said a U.S. airstrike on the Taliban killed 11 of its fighters, helping the ISIS militants.
The remoteness of the area makes it impossible to independently verify the contradictory claims.
Afghanistan's ISIS affiliate and the larger and more well-established Taliban are both committed to overthrowing the U.S.-backed government, but they are bitterly divided over leadership, ideology and tactics, and have fought often.
Afghan officials said fighting between ISIS and the Taliban in Tora Bora began on Tuesday. They could not confirm who was in control of the area.
Defense Ministry spokesman Daulat Waziri would not say whether ISIS was in complete control of Tora Bora, but he said Afghan forces killed five militants in the eastern Nangarhar province, pushing them out of the Chapahar district. Waziri said Afghan forces will continue their offensive toward Tora Bora with NATO air support.
The province, which borders Pakistan, is the main foothold of the ISIS affiliate, which has emerged over the past two years and is loyal to the central leadership in Iraq and Syria.
While the United States estimates there are about 800 IS fighters in Afghanistan, mostly restricted to Nangarhar, other estimates say their ranks include thousands of battle-hardened Uzbek militants.
Last week Russia announced it was reinforcing two of its bases in Central Asia, in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, with its newest weapons because of fears of a "spill-over of terrorist activities from Afghanistan" by the Afghan ISIS affiliate.
"The (ISIS) group's strategy to establish an Islamic caliphate poses a threat not only to Afghanistan but also to the neighboring countries," Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said.
Also on Thursday, Afghanistan's intelligence chief released the results of a three-month investigation into a January bombing in Kandahar that killed five diplomats from the United Arab Emirates.
Masoum Stanikzai said a cook confessed to planting the military-grade explosives in the guesthouse of the provincial governor after the Taliban promised him $30,000 and a house in neighboring Pakistan. He said Pakistan has been asked to hand over three Taliban leaders wanted in connection to the attack. Stanikzai said the FBI had assisted with the forensic investigation.
Afghanistan and Pakistan have long accused each other of turning a blind eye to militants operating along their porous, mountainous border.
Elsewhere in Afghanistan, a roadside bomb killed five people and wounded six others in the Ghazni province, south of Kabul, according to provincial police chief Aminullah Amarkhiel.
Associated Press writer Kathy Gannon in Islamabad contributed to this report.