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Central & South Asia
Turkmenistan 'battles drug gang'
Government says traffickers "neutralised" after residents reported heavy fighting.
Last Modified: 14 Sep 2008 09:57 GMT

Authorities in Turkmenistan say that a gang of drug traffickers has been "neutralised" after gun battles were reported in the capital Ashgabat.

Witnesses in the northern suburbs of the city said that armoured personnel carriers were deployed on the streets and heavy gun fire had been heard during the security operation on Saturday.

Initial reports from independent media and diplomatic sources had suggested that security forces were battling "a religious group, possibly radical Islamists".

"Witnesses said that 20 police were killed and their bodies were taken in secret to an Ashgabat hospital," the www.gundogar.org website, which is not accessible in Turkmenistan, also reported on Saturday.

In a statement on Sunday, the foreign ministry did not confirm if there had been any casualties in the fighting.

"According to the general prosecutor's office, a group of individuals involved in illicit drug supplies has been identified as a result of law enforcement operations," the statement said, without giving further details.

Information is strictly controlled in the former Soviet republic and state media did not report on the incident.

Before the foreign ministry statement, Arkady Dubnov, a Moscow-based reporter for the Vremya Novostei newspaper and expert on Central Asia, told the AFP news agency that sources in Ashgabat had told him of "tanks and armoured vehicles opening fire on a drinking water factory" where an armed group was hiding.

The US embassy in Turkmenistan warned Americans to stay away from the northern districts of the city.

The Central Asian nation, bordering Iran and Afghanistan, has a predominantly Muslim population and large oil and gas reserves. It is used as a route for the global heroin trade.

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Source:
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