DUSHANBE Tajikistan's security forces said on Tuesday they had launched a military operation in the remote eastern region of Gorno-Badakhshan against a former opposition warlord accused of killing a security services general at the weekend.
The operation, using helicopter gunships, appeared to be the largest of its kind in the volatile ex-Soviet nation, which borders Afghanistan and China, since late 2010, when troops hit rebel forces in a retaliatory attack in a nearby region.
Maj.-Gen. Abdullo Nazarov, head of the Gorno-Badakhshan branch of Tajikistan's State Committee on National Security (GKNB), was beaten to death on Saturday by a group of people who stopped his car in a region neighboring Afghanistan.
A source in Tajikistan's security services, who requested anonymity, told Reuters that a "special operation" was under way in the autonomous region, which lies in the Pamir mountains.
"Tolib Ayombekov, a former opposition warlord who now commands the Ishkashim detachment of border guards, is accused of the murder," the security source said.
The GKNB, successor to the Soviet-era KGB, said in a statement: "Ayombekov and his accomplices have declined to face justice".
Tajikistan, a mainly Muslim, Central Asian nation of 7.5 million, remains the poorest former Soviet republic 15 years after the end of 1992-97 civil war, in which the Moscow-backed secular government fought the Islamist opposition.
Tens of thousands were killed before a 1997 peace deal signed in Moscow, under which the opposition was entitled to a 30-percent quota in Tajikistan's state institutions.
"This murder was the last straw. The warlord, who has clean forgotten that the war ended 15 years ago, must be destroyed," the Tajik security officer said.
He said communications had been cut off in Khorog, the capital of Gorno-Badakhshan, around 500 km (310 miles) southeast of the capital Dushanbe.
A local resident of Khorog, with access to the Internet, told Reuters in an email that sporadic shooting could be heard from about 20 km (13 miles) away. Military helicopters were patrolling the area, he said.
Employees of international humanitarian bodies were evacuated to a safer location and local residents were told not to go to work on Tuesday, he said.
The Gorno-Badakhshan autonomous region, with a population of around 250,000, mainly supported the opposition during the civil war. Local attitudes toward Dushanbe remain chilly.
President Imomali Rakhmon's tenuous grip on the restive region is further weakened by drug trafficking and the smuggling of tobacco and other goods across the porous Afghan border.
(Writing by Dmitry Solovyov, editing by Tim Pearce)