DUSHANBE, Tajikistan – The Tajik government forces unleashed a massive operation Tuesday against a rebel group in apparent retaliation for the fatal stabbing of a top security official, triggering clashes that killed dozens.
The government said 12 government troops and 30 militants were killed. However, a security services official told The Associated Press that about 20 government troops were killed. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak to the media.
The fighting marked one of the worst outbursts of violence in Tajikistan since a 2010 government campaign to wipe out Islamist militants in another region. It threatens to undermine stability in the impoverished ex-Soviet nation bordering Afghanistan to the north, reviving the specter of a devastating five-year civil war that ravaged the country in the 1990s.
The clashes occurred in the mountainous semi-autonomous Gorno-Badakhshan province bordering Afghanistan. One of those killed was the commander of a special forces unit, the security services official said.
Tajikistan's chief military prosecutor, Khairullo Saidov, was wounded in his foot during the fighting, the official said. He said the military operation would continue Wednesday.
Many ambulances were seen driving from the airport to hospitals in the capital, Dushanbe, suggesting that a significant number of troops were in need of treatment.
The operation was launched after Abdullo Nazarov, a general with Tajikistan's national intelligence service, was stabbed to death Saturday in Ishkashim, some 520 kilometers (325 miles) east of the capital, Dushanbe.
Authorities have blamed the killing on an armed group led by Tolib Ayombekov, a former warlord. Ayombekov was given a government post as part of a U.N.-brokered peace plan that ended the country's 1992-1997 civil war between President Emomali Rakhmon's secular government and his mostly Islamic opponents.
More than 50,000 people are believed to have died in that conflict.
Ayombekov and other former warlords who got official jobs in the power-sharing deal have gradually been driven out of the government as Rakhmon has sought to strengthen his authoritarian rule and stamp out all signs of radical Islam.
Defeating influential power-brokers in Gorno-Badakhshan may help cement Rakhmon's authority, but possibly at the risk of provoking greater discontent among the impoverished population.
The government has previously accused Ayombekov of running a tobacco-smuggling operation.
Ayombekov denied the accusations. He told the AP on Monday that Nazarov died after getting involved in a drunken argument at a bar in the town of Ishkashim.
"He fell and knocked his head against a rock. It was a lethal injury," Ayombekov said.
There is no official information about the number of soldiers deployed in Gorno-Badakhshan, but Ayombekov estimated that there were around 800 troops in the province and that 10 helicopters have flown in over a two-day period.
Workers for international aid organizations were evacuated from the province because of security concerns.
Phone and Internet connections have been severed in Gorno-Badakhshan, a thinly populated territory of some 200,000 people that covers around half the country, and police have thrown up numerous roadblocks on roads that lead to the area.
The country's most popular news website has also been blocked, suggesting that authorities may be attempting to limit information about the events.
Gorno-Badakhshan sought to secure independence during the civil war, and its residents have remained fiercely protective of the province's quasi-autonomous status. The current military operation is likely to incite profound anger.