Heavily armed Islamic militants ambushed a military convoy in eastern Tajikistan, killing at least 23 soldiers and dealing a severe blow to the impoverished nation on Afghanistan’s poorly secured northern border.
The Sunday ambush is the deadliest attack on security forces in years and underscores the dangers the Islamic militants pose to the government of the ex-Soviet nation.
The country, which shares a 1,300km long porous border with Afghanistan, is still reeling from its five-year civil war in the 1990s that pitted a loose coalition of Islamic fighters and nationalists against former Soviet functionaries. About 100,000 people died in the hostilities.
The military convoy was attacked near Rasht district, an area about 80km north of the Afghan border, Tajik Defense Ministry spokesman Faridun Makhmadaliyev said on Monday. He said the attackers, who included militants from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Russia’s volatile southern region of Chechnya, were led by Mullo Abdullo, a radical Islamic commander who took an active part in the civil war. Abdullo fled to Afghanistan after the end of the civil war in 1997, but is believed to have returned to his native country some time last year.
Another warlord, Alovuddin Davlatov, is also suspected of having taken part in Sunday’s ambush, Makhmadaliyev said. Davlatov’s brother, a politician with the opposition Islamic Revival Party, was detained by security services 10 days ago on suspicion of belonging to a banned extremist organization.
Many soldiers were also seriously wounded and were evacuated for treatment, Makhmadaliyev said.
Tajik President Emomali Rakhmon, who is currently in New York to attend a session of the UN General Assembly, ordered the attackers brought to justice.
Rakhmon has ruled the nation with a heavy hand since 1992, drawing frequent criticism abroad for human rights violations and media and opposition suppression.