Tajik militants 'refuse to lay down weapons'

Tajik militants who were engaged in deadly clashes with security forces earlier this week have refused to lay down their weapons despite a tense ceasefire, prosecutors said on Saturday.

Dozens of people were killed in the clashes which started when Tajik security forces poured into the remote eastern Badakhshan region to fight militants loyal to an ex-warlord after the murder of a senior security official.

Raising an earlier toll, Tajik prosecutors said 17 members of the security forces, 30 militants and one civilian were killed in the clashes in and around the main regional town of Khorog.

A ceasefire has held in the last few days as the government forces and local representatives held talks but the prosecutors said the militants had refused to give up their leaders and hand over weapons.

"They categorically refused to carry out these suggestions and have again started to gather armed supporters and have begun armed resistance," the prosecutors said in a statement.

"We hope that the special operation to detain the criminals will finish shortly," it added.

Amid concerns that the real death toll could be even higher, Tajik President Emomali Rakhmon told Western ambassadors that everything would be done to ensure the militants laid down their weapons and order was restored.

"The main aim of the operation by government troops is to protect the law and to detain those guilty of killing the security official," his press service quoted Rakhmon as saying.

The violence in the Pamir Mountains region was the worst internal unrest for two years in Tajikistan, the ex-Soviet Union's poorest state that borders Afghanistan and China and is still recovering from a 1992-97 civil war.

The government blamed Tolib Ayombekov, a former warlord from the civil war, for the murder on Saturday of regional security chief General Abdullo Nazarov who was stabbed to death after being dragged from his car.

The authorities accuse Ayombekov, who once headed a border guards unit, of running an organised crime group that smuggled drugs and precious stones into Tajikistan over the Afghan border and of being behind a series of killings.

A Tajik military source, who asked not to be named, told AFP a new military operation against the rebels could not be ruled out, possibly including the Afghan security forces to prevent the militants fleeing over the border.

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