MOSCOW/ALMATY (Reuters) - Police in Tajikistan said on Saturday they were closing in on a sacked deputy defense minister accused of ordering gun attacks around the capital Dushanbe, amid rising tension between the pro-Moscow secular government and Islamist opposition groups.
Nine police officers and 13 rebels were killed in Friday’s clashes in Dushanbe and the nearby city of Vahdat, police said.
Security forces pursued the insurgents, led by the sacked deputy defense minister, General Abdukhalim Nazarzoda, to Ramit Gorge some 150 km (95 miles) from the city.
“The territory has been completely surrounded, the operation to apprehend and neutralize the criminals is under way,” the Interior Ministry said in a statement, adding that both the army and special forces were involved, and 32 insurgents had been captured so far.
A journalist in Dushanbe told Reuters by telephone that the city was quiet on Saturday, and shops and businesses were open as normal.
But several hours later an armed group attacked a police post outside the city, killing one officer and wounding several, Russian news agencies cited a police source as saying.
The attackers came from the direction of Vahdat, the source said.
The outbreak of violence has raised fears of a return to unrest in Tajikistan, a hard-up Central Asian Muslim nation of 8 million people that has remained volatile since a 1992-97 civil war between the Moscow-backed government and Islamist insurgents in which tens of thousands died.
Nazarzoda, a former rebel fighter, was brought into the Tajik armed forces under a deal to end the conflict. The only reason given for his dismissal on Friday was that he had “committed a crime”.
President Imomali Rakhmon, the former head of a Soviet state farm who has ruled since 1992 with little tolerance of dissent, has locked horns with the Islamist opposition in what his opponents say is an illegal crackdown.
Russia supported Rakhmon during the civil war and still maintains a military base in Tajikistan with 6,000 troops.
Muhiddin Kabiri, the head of the main opposition Islamic Revival Party of Tajikistan (IRPT), fled abroad in June, saying he was about to served with trumped-up criminal charges.
“The pressure the ruling regime is exerting on my party is not good for stability; on the contrary, it is giving rise to radical ideas,” he said at the time.
IRPT leaders still in Tajikistan could not be reached for comment on Saturday.
Kazakhstan-based Central Asia political analyst Alexander Knyazev said the latest bout of violence was “beyond all doubt a reaction to Rakhmon’s Islamophobia”.
“It looks like Rakhmon will now tighten the screws to totally suppress any sort of dissent,” he told Reuters.
Russia says it is worried by the security situation in Central Asia following the withdrawal of NATO troops from next-door Afghanistan.
Critics say tough official measures to stamp out Islamist militancy risk provoking a backlash across Central Asia, including Tajikistan, and there are also fears of a spillover from Islamic State’s insurgency in Syria and Iraq.
The U.S. embassy in Dushanbe closed its doors and said on its website that the incidents “may be precursors to other acts of violence”.
(This story corrects spelling of general’s name in paragraphs 3 and 9 to Abdukhalim Nazarzoda, not Abdulkhalim Nazarzod. Also removes reference in paragraph 9 to the general being a member of the Islamic Revival Party of Tajikistan, after the party denied this. The reference was first included in Moscow-datelined news stories on Friday)
Reporting by Vladimir Soldatkin and Dmitry Solovyov; Additional reporting by Jack Stubbs in Moscow; Writing by Dmitry Solovyov; Editing by Kevin Liffey