By Roman Kozhevnikov
DUSHANBE (Reuters) - Tajik government forces launched their biggest operation for nearly two years on Tuesday, losing nine dead and 25 wounded in an attack on a former opposition warlord accused of killing a security services chief in a remote eastern region.
The pre-dawn attack was ordered after Maj.-Gen. Abdullo Nazarov, head of the regional branch of the State Committee on National Security (GKNB), was beaten to death on Saturday by a group who stopped his car in the Gorno-Badakhshan region.
Communications were cut off in the regional capital, Khorog, and a Khorog resident said locals had been told to stay at home and gunfire could be heard in the distance.
"The battle is still raging," a senior security service source told Reuters on condition of anonymity. "Both sides are suffering big losses. "Our losses are nine dead and 25 wounded."
He did not say how many rebels had been killed. "Their losses are certainly higher than ours," he said.
The same official said earlier that security forces had taken alive a group of rebel fighters, including five Afghan citizens believed to be linked to the Taliban movement fighting U.S.-led NATO forces in their own country next door.
The GKNB, successor to the Soviet-era KGB, said in a statement that the "organized criminal group" accused of killing Nazarov was led by Tolib Ayombekov, a former opposition warlord who now commands the Ishkashim detachment of border guards.
Ayombekov's gang had for many years been involved in drug trafficking and the smuggling of tobacco and precious stones and had committed "bandit attacks", the GKNB said. It did not say why it had not arrested him earlier.
"HE FORGOT THE WAR IS OVER"
Gorno-Badakhshan is an autonomous region deep in the Pamir mountains. Its capital Khorog overlooks the rushing Pyandzh river separating the area from Afghanistan, and lies about 500 km (310 miles) southeast of Dushanbe, the national capital.
Tajikistan, a mainly Muslim, Central Asian nation of 7.5 million, remains the poorest former Soviet republic 15 years after the end of a 1992-97 civil war in which the Moscow-backed secular government fought the Islamist opposition.
Tens of thousands were killed before a 1997 peace deal signed in Moscow, under which the opposition was entitled to a 30-percent quota in Tajikistan's state institutions.
"This murder was the last straw. The warlord, who has clean forgotten that the war ended 15 years ago, must be destroyed," the Tajik security source said.
Communications have been cut off in Khorog, the security source said, and a Khorog resident with access to the Internet told Reuters by email that sporadic shooting could be heard from about 20 km away. Military helicopters were patrolling the area.
Employees of international humanitarian bodies were evacuated to a safer location and local residents were told not to go to work on Tuesday, he said.
The Gorno-Badakhshan region, population around 250,000, mainly supported the opposition during the civil war. Local attitudes toward Dushanbe remain chilly.
President Imomali Rakhmon's tenuous grip on the restive region is further weakened by drug trafficking and the smuggling of tobacco and other goods across the porous Afghan border.
Tuesday's operation appeared to be the largest of its kind since late 2010, when troops hit rebel forces in a retaliatory attack in a nearby region.
(Writing by Dmitry Solovyov, editing by Tim Pearce)