DUSHANBE, Tajikistan (AP) — Heavily armed Islamic militants ambushed a military convoy in eastern Tajikistan, killing at least 23 soldiers and dealing a severe blow to this impoverished nation on Afghanistan's poorly secured northern border.

The Sunday ambush is the deadliest attack on security forces in years and underscores the dangers the Islamic militants pose to the government of this ex-Soviet nation.

The country, which shares a 830-mile (1,300-kilometer) porous border with Afghanistan, is still reeling from its five-year-long civil war in the 1990s that pitted a loose coalition of Islamic fighters and nationalists against former Soviet functionaries. The hostilities left about 100,000 people dead.

The military convoy was attacked near Rasht district, an area about 80 kilometers (50 miles) north of the Afghan border, Defense Ministry spokesman Faridun Makhmadaliyev said Monday. He said the attackers, which included militants from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Russia's volatile southern region of Chechnya, were led by Mullo Abdullo, a radical Islamic commander who took an active part in the civil war. Abdullo fled to Afghanistan after the end of the civil war in 1997, but he is believed to have returned to his native country some time last year.

Another warlord, Alovuddin Davlatov, is also suspected to have taken part in Sunday's ambush, Makhmadaliyev said. Davlatov's brother, a politician with the opposition Islamic Revival Party, was detained by security services 10 days ago on suspicion of belonging to a banned extremist organization.

Many soldiers were also seriously wounded and were evacuated for treatment, Makhmadaliyev said.

Tajik President Emomali Rakhmon, who is currently in New York to attend a session of the United Nations General Assembly, ordered the attackers brought to justice.

Rakhmon has ruled this nation with a heavy hand since 1992, drawing frequent criticism abroad for human rights violations and media and opposition suppression.

Police patrols in the Tajik capital already have been increased amid rising tension following a string of terrorist blasts and a large-scale prison escape by Islamist insurgents and government opponents.

A suicide bombing against a police station in the northern city of Khujand earlier this month claimed two victims and wounded 25. Days later, a bomb was detonated in a disco in Dushanbe, wounding seven.

Authorities believe Islamic militants were responsible for both bombings.

Most Islamist fighters gave up armed resistance after reaching an uneasy peace settlement with the government. But many returned with a hard-line anti-government position over concerns they were being squeezed out of official positions granted to them as part of the peace agreement.

Military activity in the remote and mountainous Rasht Valley, where Abdullo is believed to have taken refuge, has picked up in recent weeks as authorities seek to capture 18 men still on the run after a dramatic prison breakout last month.

Only seven of the 25 fugitives, who included many Islamic militants and government opponents, have been captured.


Associated Press Writer Peter Leonard contributed to this report from Almaty, Kazakhstan.