DUSHANBE Tajik President Imomali Rakhmon, likely to be re-elected next year, pledged on Wednesday to punish "criminals" defying his 20-year rule in the volatile nation where recent fighting between government troops and armed rebels killed dozens.
Rakhmon visited Khorog, capital of the Gorno-Badakhshan autonomous region deep in the Pamir mountains, for the first time since his forces stormed the region in July in pursuit of a former warlord accused of killing a security service general.
Seventeen soldiers, 30 rebels and at least one civilian were killed in the fighting near the Afghan border, about 520 km (325 miles) southeast of the Tajik capital Dushanbe, in what analysts viewed as a show of force by Rakhmon in the restive region.
"The state does not hold negotiations with criminals. Make no mistake: anyone involved in crimes shall be punished. We have declared an irreconcilable fight against crime," Rakhmon said in a speech broadcast live on state television.
"The state has the right to put its own house in order."
Rakhmon, a 59-year-old former head of a Soviet cotton farm, has ruled the mainly Muslim, former Soviet republic for 20 years. He is widely expected to seek a new seven-year term in a presidential election set for November 2013.
Counting on Russian support, Tajikistan has agreed to extend the deployment of Russia's 201st military base in the country for more than 20 years after the current lease expires in 2014, sources close to the talks have said.
Tolerating little dissent across his Central Asian country of 7.5 million people, Rakhmon's authority is less secure in Gorno-Badakhshan, where many in the population of 250,000 sided with the opposition during a 1992-97 civil war.
Russia backed Rakhmon's government during the war and brokered a peace deal that entitled former opposition fighters to a 30 percent share of government jobs. These former warlords retain popularity and influence in Gorno-Badakhshan.
After the July offensive, Rakhmon's government agreed to withdraw troops from the region from August 24 after a stand-off with around 2,000 demonstrators in Khorog. On Wednesday, he issued a fresh warning to any warlords who defied his rule.
"Only those who have voluntarily turned in their arms and collaborate with investigators may count on being amnestied."
Tajikistan remains the poorest of the 15 former Soviet republics. More than a million Tajiks work abroad, mainly in Russia, sending home cash that helps the fragile economy stay afloat and keeps simmering discontent in check.
State television showed jubilant crowds of medical workers and teachers, girls in national dress playing tambourines and crowds of schoolchildren waving flags and flowers.
Independent media were barred from covering the two-day visit to the remote region.
"The authorities are doing whatever they can to make sure there is no real competition during the election and that the current president of Tajikistan wins in this travesty of free choice," said political analyst Saimiddin Dustov.
(Writing by Dmitry Solovyov; Editing by Mark Heinrich)