Government forces in Tajikistan have launched their largest military operation in nearly two years against a former opposition warlord, killing at least 30 fighters and losing about 12 soldiers in the process.
A pre-dawn attack was launched early on Tuesday in the country's remote eastern region, targeting forces loyal to Tolib Ayombekov, after a security services chief was killed in the area. At least 20 soldiers were injured in the attack.
Major-General Abdullo Nazarov, the head of the regional branch of the State Committee on National Security (GKNB), was beaten to death on Saturday by a group who stopped his car in the Gorno-Badakhshan region.
Communications have been cut off in Khorog, the regional capital, and a resident of the city said that locals had been advised to stay at home.
"The battle is still raging," a senior security service source told Reuters on condition of anonymity. "Both sides are suffering big losses.
He did not say how many rebels had been killed.
Earlier, the same official said that security forces had captured a group of rebel fighters, including five Afghan citizens believed to be linked to the Taliban movement fighting US-led NATO forces in their own country.
Military helicopters were patrolling the area, and employees of international humanitarian bodies were evacuated to a safer location. Local residents were told not to go to work on Tuesday, a resident of Khorog said.
The GKNB, successor to the Soviet-era KGB, said in a statement that the "organised criminal group" accused of killing Nazarov was led by Ayombekov, a former opposition warlord who now commands the Ishkashim detachment of border guards.
Ayombekov's gang had allegedly been involved in drug trafficking and the smuggling of tobacco and precious stones, and had also committed "bandit attacks", the GKNB said.
Gorno-Badakhshan is an autonomous region deep in the Pamir mountains. Its capital Khorog overlooks the Pyandzh river separating the area from Afghanistan, and lies about 500km southeast of Dushanbe, the national capital.
Tajikistan is a mainly Muslim central Asian country of 7.5 million people. It remains the poorest of the former Soviet Republics, 15 years after the end of a 1992-97 civil war in which the Moscow-backed secular government fought a religiously motivated opposition.
Tens of thousands were killed before a 1997 peace deal signed in Moscow, under which the opposition was entitled to a 30-per cent quota in Tajikistan's state institutions.
The Gorno-Badakhshan region, population around 250,000, mainly supported the opposition during the civil war.