MOSCOW (Reuters) - At least eight policemen and two gunmen were killed in Tajikistan on Friday in attacks the authorities in the Central Asian nation blamed on forces loyal to the country's own deputy defence minister.
Tajikistan, an impoverished Muslim nation of 8 million and the poorest ex-Soviet state, is still volatile after a 1992-97 civil war that killed tens of thousands.
The events prompted the U.S. embassy in Dushanbe, the Tajik capital, to shut. A statement on its website said armed gunmen had clashed with Tajik police early on Friday in the city and that the incidents "may be precursors to other acts of violence."
Tajikistan's interior ministry blamed the attacks in Dushanbe and the adjacent city of Vahdat on a "terrorist group" it said had seized arms and ammunition.
It said the group was led by Major General Abdulkhalim Mirzo Nazarzod, the deputy defence minister. He was dismissed later on Friday by Imomali Rakhmon, the president, for "committing a crime".
Law enforcement officers had killed two of the attackers, at least one of whom was a state security official, and wounded three others, the ministry said. It added that six people were detained and that Nazarzod was on the run.
Russia's RIA news agency quoted an unidentified source as saying that 33 interior and defence ministry troops had in fact been killed in Dushanbe, as well as nine of Nazarzod's troops.
Nazarzod is a member of the opposition Islamic Revival Party of Tajikistan. A former opposition militiaman, he was brought into the Tajik armed forces under a 1997 peace deal.
Rakhmon, a former head of a Soviet state farm who tolerates little dissent, has put pressure on the Islamic Revival Party of Tajikistan. He is a close ally of Moscow and used Russian support during the civil war.
He faced embarrassment earlier this year when the U.S.-trained commander of the country's special forces declared himself a member of Islamic State (IS).
Russia says it is concerned with the security situation in Central Asia following the withdrawal of NATO troops from adjacent Afghanistan. Risks of a spillover from IS in Syria and Iraq have added to fears of unrest.
Critics of the authorities say measures to stamp out militant Islam risk provoking a backlash.
Dododjon Atovulloev, a Tajik opposition activist who lives in Germany and has long known Nazarzod, said he was not a religious extremist. He cast Friday's violence as proof of growing discontent.
"Had he been a fanatic, Rakhmon would have never made him deputy defence minister," Atovulloev told Reuters by phone. "People are fed up working as migrant labourers, they have no freedoms."
Additional reporting by Vladimir Soldatkin; Editing by Andrew Osborn