September 20, 2010 9:43:58 am
At least 23 soldiers were killed in Tajikistan after a convoy was ambushed by heavily armed Islamic militants – a devastating blow that will shake this impoverished nation lying on Afghanistan’s poorly secured northern border.
The military convoy was heading for eastern Rasht district,an area near the border with Afghanistan,when it was attacked in a valley Sunday,Defense Ministry spokesman Faridun Makhmadaliyev said Monday.
Many soldiers were seriously wounded and evacuated for treatment,he said.
The attack comes amid rising tension following a string of terrorist blasts and a large-scale prison escapes by Islamist insurgents and government opponents.
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The gunmen are believed to have included citizens from Afghanistan and Pakistan,as well fighters from the volatile southern Russian region of Chechnya,Makhmadaliyev said.
The attackers were led by Mullo Abdullo,a radical Islamic commander that came to prominence during the civil war that devastated this former Soviet republic in the 1990s,Makhmadaliyev said.
No details were immediately available whether any of the gunmen were killed or captured.
Abdullo fled to Afghanistan after the end of the civil war in 1997,but he is believed to have returned to his native country some time last year in an effort to overthrow the government led by President Emomali Rakhmon.
Most Islamist fighters gave up armed resistance after reaching an
uneasy peace settlement with the government. But many returned with a hard-line anti-government position over concerns they were being squeezed out of official positions granted to them as part of the peace agreement.
Military activity in the remote and mountainous Rasht Valley,where Abdullo is believed to have taken refuge,has picked up in recent weeks as authorities seek to capture 18 men still on the run after a dramatic prison breakout last month.
Only seven of the 25 fugitives,who included many Islamic militants and government opponents,have been captured.
Sunday’s attack also comes amid rising tension following a series of recent terrorist blasts.
A suicide bombing against a police station in the northern city of Khujand earlier this month claimed two victims and wounded 25. Days later,a bomb was detonated in a disco in the capital,Dushanbe,wounding seven.
Authorities believe Islamic militants were responsible for both bombings.
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