By Roman Kozhevnikov
DUSHANBE (Reuters) - A former warlord hunted by authorities in Tajikistan has given himself up, state media reported on Monday, bowing to government demands three weeks after nearly 50 people were killed during a military offensive in a mountainous area near the Afghan border.
The government had demanded Tolib Ayombekov surrender as a condition for it withdrawing troops from the autonomous Gorno-Badakhshan region, where 17 soldiers, 30 rebels and at least one civilian were killed in fighting in late July.
Ayombekov, who fought against the government in a 1992-97 civil war, is accused of murdering a local security chief, a killing that prompted President Imomali Rakhmon to send thousands of troops into the Pamir mountains in pursuit.
However, some analysts said the military operation, the largest of its kind in almost two years, was more a show of force by Rakhmon, whose control over parts of the impoverished former Soviet republic remains tenuous 15 years after the end of the war.
Ayombekov, who denies involvement in the murder, turned himself in late on Sunday in the interests of "maintaining peace" in the mainly Muslim country of 7.5 million people, state news agency Khovar reported.
A local television channel showed Ayombekov, apparently in good health, reading from a statement after surrendering.
"We are prepared to answer before the law. Let the judiciary decide who is to blame and who isn't," he said. "We are always ready to serve Tajikistan and the head of state's policies."
Ayombekov was a border guard commander in the region and one of many opposition fighters to receive government jobs as part of a peace deal that ended a civil war in which tens of thousands were killed.
The State Committee on National Security, successor to the Soviet-era KGB, had accused him of running a tobacco smuggling operation along the porous border with Afghanistan.
Separated from Afghanistan by the Pyandzh river, Gorno-Badakhshan is an autonomous region where the authority of central government is fragile. Most of its 250,000-strong population sided with the opposition during the civil war.
Rebels who resisted the government offensive began laying down their weapons on July 29, five days after troops attacked.
(Writing By Robin Paxton; Editing by Andrew Osborn)