Dushanbe (AsiaNews/Agencies) - At least 42 people died in fighting between Tajikistan government troops and rebels in the eastern mountainous semi-autonomous Gorno-Badakhshan province, on the border with Afghanistan.
According to the Tajik government, 12 soldiers and 30 militants were killed in the fighting. Radio Free Europe (RFE) reported more than 100 people killed. About 30 of the 40 rebel fighters captured by the security forces were Afghan nationals. Up to 30 soldiers were wounded in the fighting.
The violence reportedly erupted after Tajik government forces launched a massive operation in the region on Tuesday in retaliation to the fatal stabbing of a top official from the Security Ministry on Saturday.
Tajik authorities have blamed the killing on an armed group led by Tolib Ayombekov, a former warlord and Islamist rebel accused by the authorities of involvement in drug and arms smuggling as well as brutal crimes.
The main fighting occurred in Khorog, the capital of Gorno-Badakhshan autonomous region, which sits along a river that marks Tajikistan's border with Afghanistan.
Populated by the Pamiri ethnic minority, the region was the stronghold of Islamist rebels during the 1990s war that cost up to 100,000 lives.
Local sources said that Tajik authorities severed phone and road links with the region on Tuesday.
Residents of the Afghan side of the river said they saw Tajik government helicopter gunships strafing Khorog and heard the sound of rocket-propelled grenades and heavy machine guns through the day's fighting.
Ethnically and religiously different from the rest of Tajikistan, Gorno-Badakhshan has long been a thorn in the side of central authorities.
Probably the poorest area of the poorest ex-Soviet republic, the eastern region is also a gateway for the international opium trade between Afghanistan, the world's main producer of opiates, and consumers in Russia and Western Europe.
The latest episode of violence was precipitated on Saturday when the National Security Committee chief for Gorno-Badakhshan, General Abdullo Nazarov, was killed.
Tajikistan's central government blamed his death on Mr. Ayombekov, who ostensibly ordered the hit to protect his smuggling network.