DUSHANBE, Tajikistan (AP) — Tajik soldiers are gaining the upper hand over armed opposition groups along the Afghan border, with a growing number of rebels surrendering their weapons in hopes of gaining amnesty, police said Monday. But Tajik authorities are still seeking one gang's leader, whom they blame for the death of a top security official.
Word of the fading resistance in the Gorno-Badakhshan provincial capital, Khorog, eased fears of greater instability in the impoverished ex-Soviet nation, which still bears the scars of a five-year civil war in the 1990s that is estimated to have killed more than 60,000 people. Tajikistan's location also makes it strategically important to the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan.
Clashes broke out Tuesday in Khorog as authorities sought to arrest Tolib Ayombekov, a one-time warlord suspected in the killing of Abdullo Nazarov, a general in Tajikistan's national intelligence service. Hundreds of troops have reportedly poured into Khorog to hunt down Ayombekov.
Ayombekov was one of many opposition fighters in the civil war who continue to wield substantial local influence and defy the central government. Authorities also accused Ayombekov of drug-trading and smuggling tobacco and precious stones.
Ayombekov has denied the accusations and said the government is using Nazarov's death as a pretext for cementing its grip over Gorno-Badakhshan, a thinly populated province.
At least 17 troops and 30 rebels were killed in the fighting early last week. Authorities say one civilian died, but there are local reports the toll may be higher. Ayombekov's precise whereabouts are unknown. A reporter in Khorog for local news portal Asia-Plus cited claims that he was seriously wounded and in a village near Khorog.
Independent verification of events in the region is difficult because of its remote nature and spotty communications links.
Authorities said that although negotiations are underway to secure amnesties for most of the rebel fighters, Ayombekov must give himself up. Interior Ministry spokesman Makhmadullo Asadulloyev said that the weapons being surrendered by the rebels include assault rifles, handguns and sniper rifles.
Meanwhile, the Islamic Revival Party, the largest opposition force in the country of 7 million, demanded an investigation into the death of the head of its Gorno-Badakhshan section, Sabzali Mamadrizoyev.
The party says it believes Mamadrizoyev was detained by law enforcement officers after he delivered a speech at a rally held in Khorog on the day before fighting broke out. It claimed in a statement that he was severely beaten and later shot dead.
"He made critical remarks during the meeting, but they were within reason and lawful," party leader Mukhiddin Kabiri said.