At least 23 soldiers were killed in eastern Tajikistan on September 19. According to the Ministry of Defence (MoD) spokesperson Faridun Mahmadaliev, the troops were killed as their trucks were ambushed by heavily armed militants near Rasht, the centre of the volatile Rasht valley that had been the Islamic opposition stronghold during the 1992-1997 civil war. Mahmadaliev has blamed the “terrorist act” on Islamist militants with links to terrorist groups in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Russia’s volatile Chechnya. Tajik President Emomali Rahmon who is now in New York attending the UN MDG summit instructed security agencies to capture and punish those who had carried out the attack. Meanwhile, some independent media have put the estimates of soldiers killed in the ambush at 40, suggesting that at least ten troops were wounded (Asia Plus, Avesta, Khovar, Regnum.ru, Pressa.tj, September 20).
The incident further deteriorated the security situation in Tajikistan that has experienced sporadic violence over the last month. Many observers have blamed the upsurge in violence on the escape of 25 high-profile inmates – many with links to terrorist groups – from a detention centre in Dushanbe on August 23. Seven of the escapees have been recaptured by Tajik security agencies, while another 18 still remain at large.
Evidence suggests, however, that the increasingly volatile security situation in the country is not necessarily related to the brazen prison escape. On September 3, a suicide bomber hit a police station in Khujand, the centre of Tajikistan’s northern Sughd province, killing two officers and wounding about 28 others. On September 8, a previously unknown Islamic group, Jamaat Ansarulla in Tajikistan, sent an email to the website frequently used by rebels in Chechnya, claiming responsibility for the bombing in Khujand. Three days later, on September 11, Tajik border guards prevented a massive infiltration of Taliban militants from Afghanistan, killing reportedly at least 20 fighters. There have also been reports of other clashes across the country that were not confirmed by authorities. It appears increasingly that these incidents are not related (Asia Plus, Khovar, Nigoh, Tojikiston).
Meanwhile, Tajik security agencies continue dispatching additional police and army units to the Rasht valley. Prominent former Islamic opposition fighters living in Rasht claim that 200 to 300 troops arrive in the region daily. Security agencies claim that they reinforce police and army units searching for Mullo Abdullo, a former opposition field commander who had refused to be part of the 1997 peace settlement and moved with a group of fighters to Afghanistan. Last year, among reports about Abdullo’s return to the country, Tajik security agencies carried out a large scale military operation in the Rasht valley. Although they failed to capture Mullo Abdullo, they arrested dozens of other people that they accussed of membership in terrorist groups, illegal possessions of weapons, and plans to overthrow the government. Interestingly, many of these people were among the 25 convicts that escaped from the prison in Dushanbe.