By Roman Kozhevnikov
DUSHANBE (Reuters) - Rebels in Tajikistan have refused to disarm or hand over a former warlord wanted by the authorities, increasing the chances that the government will launch a new military offensive against them, a senior security source said on Saturday.
Fighters in the Gorno-Badakhshan autonomous region near the Afghan border are locked in a standoff with the government after President Imomali Rakhmon sent troops into the area on Tuesday to look for a former opposition warlord accused of killing a local security chief.
The prosecutor-general said on Saturday that the heavy fighting that followed had killed 17 troops, 30 rebels and one civilian, in violence that has raised concerns about the stability of the majority Muslim nation.
Rakhmon called a ceasefire late on Tuesday, promising to pardon anyone who disarmed, demanding that the rebels hand over Tolib Ayombekov, the wanted former warlord, along with three fighters.
But a security source told Reuters on Saturday that the rebels had refused.
"All chances of a peaceful surrender have been exhausted," said the source, who requested anonymity. "We do not rule out a second phase of the military operation. We are only awaiting an order from the president and will act accordingly."
"There are four groups of them (rebels) left - 30 or 40 people in each gang. No more than 150 people altogether. We have all means (for a new offensive) - around 3,000 military personnel have been concentrated in Gorno-Badakhshan."
The authorities did not know where Ayombekov was hiding, he added. "Maybe he is in Afghanistan, maybe he is here, on our land, but we will do everything to destroy his gang," he said.
SYMBOLIC SHOW OF FORCE?
The government's decision to dispatch helicopter gunships, armored vehicles and thousands of troops to the area was sparked by the killing last Saturday of local GKNB security chief Major-General Abdullo Nazarov, head of the local successor to the Soviet-era KGB.
His agency had accused Ayombekov's gang of smuggling drugs, tobacco and precious stones.
However, Ayombekov, who fought against Rakhmon's troops in a 1992-97 civil war before receiving a government job in the peace deal that ended the conflict, denied any involvement in Nazarov's killing.
Fearing possible infiltration of Taliban-linked fighters who support Ayombekov, Tajikistan has since closed all border crossings with Afghanistan, only allowing trucks carrying cargo for NATO troops there to pass.
Some analysts said that the assault - the first military operation on such a scale in almost two years - was a show of force by Rakhmon, whose control over parts of the Central Asian state remains tenuous 15 years after the end of the civil war.
Separated from Afghanistan by the Pyandzh river, Gorno-Badakhshan is an autonomous region where the authority of the central government is particularly fragile. Most of its 250,000 inhabitants sided with the opposition during the civil war.
Tajikistan is the poorest of 15 former Soviet republics. Tens of thousands died in its civil war, in which Rakhmon's Moscow-backed troops fought a loosely aligned opposition that included many Islamist fighters.
Former imperial master Russia still has 6,000 troops stationed in Tajikistan, its largest military deployment abroad and a bulwark against the threat of Islamist violence spilling across the Afghan border when NATO pulls its troops out in 2014.
(Reporting by Roman Kozhevnikov; Writing by Dmitry Solovyov; Editing by Andrew Osborn)