Tajik authorities hunt ex-warlord on suspicion of involvement in killing of 25 soldiers

DUSHANBE, Tajikistan (AP) — Authorities in Tajikistan launched a major manhunt Wednesday for a former opposition warlord that they suspect of masterminding an attack on a military convoy last weekend that claimed 25 lives.

Efforts to detain Mirzokhodzha Akhmadov, a warlord during Tajikistan's five-year civil war, come amid reports of a huge military operation against armed militants in the former Soviet nation's remote east.

Five men were killed during a raid Wednesday on Akhmadov's home outside the northern town of Garm, Interior Ministry spokesman Makhmadullo Asadulloyev said. He said that one man was captured alive in the raid, but that Akhmadov is believed to have fled to the mountains.

Local media have reported numerous security sweeps in several villages in the area, as well as heavy gun battles and the deployment of rocket launchers.

A military convoy was attacked Sunday near the Rasht district, an area about 80 kilometers (50 miles) north of the Afghan border, leaving at least 25 soldiers dead.

Authorities initially blamed Mullo Abdullo, a radical Islamic commander who took an active part in the civil war that ended in 1997, for the attack. Abdullo fled to Afghanistan after the end of the civil war, but he is believed to have returned to his native country some time last year.

The Interior Ministry now says Akhmadov is suspected of having given Mullo Abdullo shelter and that he organized the ambush on the military convoy.

Tajikistan has been on high alert following a string of terrorist blasts and a large-scale prison escape by Islamist insurgents and government opponents.

A suicide bombing at 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 people.

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.

Akhmadov was accused in 2008 of killing a senior police officer on an inspection trip in Garm. In that incident, a team of police officers was attacked as they were heading to an official meeting that was to focus on the activities of Akhmadov, who had been at loggerheads with the central government.

The authorities eventually backed down and gave up their hunt for Akhmadov, which seemed to indicate the government's weakness.

The civil war between President Emomali Rakhmon's secular government and the mostly Islamic opposition killed an estimated 100,000 people and made Tajikistan one of the poorest countries in the world. The conflict ended with a U.N.-brokered power-sharing deal.

As part of the peace deal, several prominent opposition figures joined the government, but Rakhmon has methodically consolidated his grip on power, sidelining Islamic opposition figures.