ALMATY (Reuters) - Security forces in Tajikistan said on Wednesday they had tracked down and killed the country’s former deputy defence minister who had been charged with high treason after dozens of people were killed in gun battles earlier this month.
The killing of General Abdukhalim Nazarzoda, a member of the country’s government until as recently as Sept. 4, risks stoking fresh tension in the unstable ex-Soviet state where tensions between the government and Islamist politicians are on the rise.
Gunmen loyal to Nazarzoda clashed with government forces in circumstances that have not been fully explained earlier this month. Nine police officers and 13 rebels were killed at the time, the police said.
On Wednesday, police said Nazarzoda and 11 of his supporters had been killed in a special operation in Ramit Gorge east of the Tajik capital Dushanbe. Four government officers had also been killed, it said.
Any signs of instability in Tajikistan are a source of concern to Russia and the United States who fear militant Islam could take root there because of its proximity to Afghanistan, though there has been limited evidence of that so far.
Visiting Russian President Vladimir Putin assured Tajik President Imomali Rakhmon on Tuesday of Moscow’s continued support of his rule. Russia keeps a 6,000-strong military base in the country.
A poor Muslim state of 8 million in Central Asia, Tajikistan remains volatile after a 1992-97 civil war in which tens of thousands of people were killed.
An official crackdown on the Islamic Revival Party (IRPT), the country’s only legal Islamist force, has stirred further instability, government critics say.
Nazarzoda was a former rebel who joined the government under a 1997 peace deal. Police originally said he was an IRPT member; the party denied this.
On Wednesday, police detained two deputy IRPT chairmen, local media reported.
IRPT leader Muhiddin Kabiri fled to Turkey in June, warning pressure on his party risked stoking Islamist extremism.
The government told the IRPT last month it was illegal and had no right to call itself a nationwide political party. It ordered its main office in Dushanbe shuttered.
In an interview with Tajik news agency Asia-Plus, published on Wednesday, Kabiri said the authorities were trying to portray the IRPT as extremists to justify using force against them.
He said the party would continue its work abroad if it had to, saying: “They can shut down the party but not the idea.”
Editing by Andrew Osborn