Hekmatyar's Afghan militants deny joining Islamic State

PESHAWAR, Pakistan (Reuters) - An influential Afghan militant faction on Monday denied reports that it had shifted loyalty to Islamic State’s budding movement in the region.

A spokesman for Hizb-i-Islami, led by Afghan commander Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, said a statement that had circulated in Afghan media last week alleging Hekmatyar had thrown his support behind the ultra-hardline jihadist movement also known as ISIS was a fake.

“It was not true. None of us had issued any such statement in support of ISIS in Afghanistan against the Afghan Taliban,” spokesman Haroon Zarghoon said.

Any shift by Hekmatyar, believed to command the loyalty of fighters in Afghanistan’s eastern Kunar and Nuristan provinces, would boost Islamic State’s expansionist ambitions in Afghanistan and Pakistan as a rival to the main Taliban insurgency.

U.S. drone strikes last week killed several leaders of the new IS offshoots, who are mostly former Taliban, in the eastern province of Nangarhar.

Afghan intelligence said the movement’s chief for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Hafez Saeed, was killed on Friday, although an IS website cast doubt on this by releasing an undated audio message purportedly from him on Monday.

Hekmatyar became a hero to many Afghans while leading mujahideen fighters against the Soviet occupation of the country in the 1980s. In the civil war of the early 1990s, forces led by him took part in fighting in Kabul that is estimated to have killed tens of thousands of people.

A former Afghan prime minister, he was designated a global terrorist by the U.S. State Department in 2003 for his links to al Qaeda and the Taliban. More recently, he is believed to have developed a rivalry with the Taliban’s supreme leader Mullah Mohammad Omar.

Hekmatyar left Afghanistan in the mid-1990s and is believed to be in Pakistan, although his exact location is unknown. Many of his former supporters have joined either the Afghan government or the Taliban.

Writing by Kay Johnson; Editing by Mark Trevelyan