MOSCOW -- More than 40 gunmen and Tajikistan government troops were reported killed Tuesday in one of the largest armed clashes in the Central Asian republic since the end of its devastating 1992-1997 civil war between Islamist militants and the autocratic pro-Russian government.
The fighting broke out after the government deployed security troops to find a former warlord, Tolib Ayombekov, who was suspected of involvement in the stabbing death Saturday of Gen. Abdullo Nazarov of the Security Ministry.
Nazarov's car was stopped by attackers near Khorog, the capital of the semi-autonomous republic of Nagorno-Badakhshan in the south of Tajikistan, officials said. Ayombekov has been employed by the government since 1997 as a frontier guard unit commander near Khorog.
"After fierce fighting during the day, our troops killed 30 gunmen and captured 40, eight of which are Afghan citizens," Nuridzhon Buriyev, a Tajikistan Security Ministry spokesman, said in a phone interview. "Unfortunately we lost 12 of our soldiers dead and 25 injured."
Buriyev said the operation would continue Wednesday but that "its active phase is over as the armed resistance was crushed." He said he didn't have information about the fate of Ayombekov.
The independent Tajik news group Asia-Plus reported that Ayombekov may have fled south to Afghanistan.
Telephone and Internet connections with Nagorno-Badakhshan have been severed since Monday night. Some independent Tajik websites were suspended, including Asia-Plus, which continued reporting using another website.
Ayombekov is very influential and has a small army of several hundred men, said Nuriddin Karshiboyev, chairman of the National Assn. of Independent Media of Tajikistan.
"Ayombekov and his men obviously thought that the murder of the security general was used as a pretext to purge the region of former field commanders, and refused to surrender," Karshiboyev said in a phone interview.
Informal political leaders of Nagorno-Badakhshan have been regularly accusing Tajikistan’s government of corruption, Asia-Plus reported.
The leader of the Party of Islamic Revival of Tajikistan, Muhiddin Kabiri, said recently that "the Tajik society hoped that after peace and accord were established in the country ... a mutual trust would grow between political forces in the republic, but that didn't materialize," Asia-Plus reported.
The Russia-24 TV network called the action in southern Tajikistan a large-scale military operation and reported that government helicopters were hovering over Khorog all day Tuesday while residents built barricades in the streets.
Tajikistan has played an important role in ferrying supplies for NATO into Afghanistan, its neighbor to the south.
-- Sergei L. Loiko