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Tajik army counter-attacks after rebels kill 25 troops
Armed rebels killed at least 25 soldiers and injured 20 in Tajikistan on Sunday. The defence ministry says the gunmen are thought to be Islamist rebels from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Chechnya. The government has launched a major military operation in response.
The rebels ambushed a military convoy in the Racht valley, east of the capital and about 50 kilometres from the Afghan border.
The government blamed the attack on Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, a group led by former Tajik civil war commander called Mullo Abdullo, who is believed to have entered the country Afghanistan.
"In addition to Tajik citizens, the terrorist group also contained militants and mercenaries including citizens of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Chechnya," said defence ministry spokesman Faridun Makhmadaliyev said. "These fighters, using the ideas of the Islamic faith as cover, wanted to turn Tajikistan into an arena for their internecine war by gathering radical underground groups around them.”
But Niklas Swanström, programme director at the Central Asia Caucasus Institute, says the Tajik government is emphasising the Islamist connection in order to win backing from the US and Russia.
“Of course the government would link them to that because that’s pretty much the worst thing you can link an opposition group to,” he says. “These groups have an Islamist side, but how much of that is important today I don’t know, and how much of that is organised crime or power politics, it’s very, very difficult to say.”
The defence ministry has sent in special forces and helicopter gunships to the remote mountainous region. Swanström says the Tajik government has little hope of gaining control of the area without a lot of back-up from the US and Russia.
Unrest in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Tajikistan has become mutually reinforcing, says Swanström.
“Together they create a powder cake,” he says. “We can’t solve the issue in one of them. We have to solve all the issues in all three of them to be able to sustain some sort of development.”
Meanwhile, on Monday neighbouring Kyrgyzstan said it had sealed its border with Tajikistan and dispatched special forces to guard the frontier region over fears the violence could spread.