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DUSHANBE -- A September 19 ambush on a Defence Ministry convoy in eastern Tajikistan killed at least 23 troops and injured dozens, authorities said.
Troops are massing at the site to pursue the culprits. The ambush took place in the evening in the Rasht District's Kamarob Gorge.
Military vehicles passing through the valley came under terrorist attack, Defence Ministry spokesman Fariddun Makhmadaliyev said, adding that official reports say 23 troops, including several Defence Ministry and National Guard officers, were killed.
However, an eyewitness at the scene said the death toll could be much higher. The convoy contained 75 troops.
The servicemen had gone to Rasht to pursue the 18 remaining fugitives from an August 23 jailbreak. "At the junction of the town of Navobod and the Kamarob Gorge, the troops came under grenade and rocket fire from an unknown armed group," the Defence Ministry said.
The attackers have been linked to former civil war insurgent commanders Mullo Abdullo and Ali Bedaka, Makhmadaliyev said.
"They're mercenaries from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Chechnya who, under the cover of the sacred religion of Islam, are trying to turn Tajikistan into an arena of internecine wars," Makhmadaliyev said.
Mullo Abdullo, who, after the 1997 peace settlement, never surrendered his weapons and instead fled to Afghanistan and Pakistan, has decided again to destabilise Tajikistan, said a source within the State Committee for National Security (GKNB), who requested anonymity out of concern for personal safety.
"Standing beside him are fighters (loyal to) another former insurgent field commander, Alobuddin Davlatov (Ali Bedaka)," the GKNB source said. "On September 10 we detained his brother Khusiddin Davlatov, who is an activist in the Islamic Renaissance Party (PIVT) and a deputy in the Rasht district madzhlis. Khusiddin is suspected of buying a large number of camouflage uniforms."
During the 1992-1997 civil war, the Rasht Valley was an insurgent stronghold. In June 2009, government troops wiped out a band of fighters there, killing Tajik opposition leader Mirzo Ziyoyev. Some surviving guerrillas were sentenced to long prison terms.
Those imprisoned guerrillas escaped August 23 from the GKNB detention centre. They headed to Rasht, investigators determined.
President Emomali Rakhmon is in New York for the UN General Assembly session but is staying abreast of the matter, presidential press secretary Abdufattokh Sharifzoda said. Rakhmon sent a telegramme expressing condolences to the families of the fallen troops. Rakhmon also ordered the leaders of security agencies to find and punish the attackers and to ensure security in the country's east.
As Central Asia Online reported earlier, last week Rakhmon sent security agency heads to negotiate with former insurgent commanders.
Negotiations as such did not occur, the GKNB source said. "We tried to meet with the leaders of different armed groups, including those who attacked the Defence Ministry convoy," the source said. "But it became obvious negotiations with the bandits were impossible. According to preliminary data, up to 500 armed fighters may be in that zone now. Troops have been assembled there to wipe them out."
Kyrgyzstan, the site of considerable unrest this year, closed its border with Tajikistan and placed border troops on alert September 20, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported.
A number of political figures and civic leaders in the Rasht Valley urged the public to support government forces in their quest to wipe out the ambushers.
Tajikistan needs peace and calm as never before, said prominent cleric Khodzhi Akbar Turadzhonzoda, the former spiritual leader of the insurgent United Tajik Opposition (UTO). He condemned the ambush.
Political scientist Abdugany Mamadazimov expressed concern that the situation could worsen. "It's possible that similar events occur in Tajikistan as part of Islamic jihad and are controlled from Afghanistan, the centre of global terrorism," he said.
"The ambush in the Kamarob Gorge showed that instability in Tajikistan's neighbours can cause problems connected to civil strife and invasion from unstable Afghanistan by new terrorist groups," Mamadzimov said. "Also, if it's a question again of neutralising former UTO field commanders, as happened last year with Mirzo Ziyoyev, this could lead to a new explosion of violence in Rasht. If the authorities seize Mirzokhudzha Akhmadov, it's not impossible that many of his supporters would take up arms."
Meanwhile, a GKNB source said Akhmadov and seven of his supporters surrendered their weapons voluntarily early September 20 and agreed to help government forces find the ambushers.
The Defence Ministry's Makhmadaliyev did not confirm reports of Akhmadov’s surrender. "We have information that this man has a large arsenal, and if he wants peace and calm in the region, he'll give it up," he said.