DUSHANBE A militant group linked to al Qaeda on Thursday claimed responsibility for killing 28 soldiers in Tajikistan and threatened more attacks, as government troops hunted down rebels in the mountains of the Central Asian state.
The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), whose exiled members have fought with the Taliban in Afghanistan, said via a radio station that they attacked a column of Tajik soldiers on Sunday in retaliation for a government crackdown on Islam.
Abdufattoh Ahmadi, who presented himself as a spokesman for the IMU, made the statement in a video message sent to the Tajik service of Radio Liberty.
"This is our response to Tajikistan's government, which has lately shut down a thousand mosques, which arrests Muslims without any reason and prohibits women from wearing Muslim clothes," Ahmadi was quoted as saying, in Tajik, by Radio Ozodi.
"We demand a stop to this policy. Otherwise, terrorist attacks will continue," Radio Ozodi quoted him as saying on its website, www.ozodi.tj.
Tajikistan, the poorest of five ex-Soviet republics in Central Asia, has jailed more than 100 members of banned Islamic groups this year and its president has criticized a fashion for religious dress in the secular but mainly Muslim nation.
The Defence Ministry had accused Islamist mercenaries from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Chechnya of carrying out Sunday's attack on troops in the Rasht district, about 180 km (130 miles) east of the capital Dushanbe.
Senior Tajik officials have vowed to kill the insurgents after launching a counter-strike in the east of the country on Wednesday night.
"We will destroy all of them. The time of forgiveness is over," General Tokhir Normatov, chief of staff of Tajikistan's police, told Reuters.
Tajik Security Council Secretary Amirkul Azimov said al Qaeda and its allies, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and the Taliban, were making attempts to destabilize Tajikistan, which shares a porous 1,340-km (840-mile) border with Afghanistan.
"We first tried to persuade these bandits to turn in their arms voluntarily, but as it turned out, you can't reach a deal with them peacefully. Now we will destroy these terrorists to the last one," Azimov told the Russian RIA news agency.
Officials said five rebels were killed and five captured in the counter-attack. They did not say whether government forces had incurred any losses. The IMU said one of its members had been killed.
Tens of thousands of people died in the 1990s when the secular government fought a civil war with factions reflecting overlapping political, religious and clan loyalties. A 1997 power-sharing peace deal formally put an end to the conflict.
Analysts say chronic poverty and a Soviet-style crackdown on religion have spurred the growth of radical Islam in Tajikistan and other parts of Central Asia.
"The authorities have got fed up listening to the brazen warlords, threatening non-stop to disturb the fragile peace in the republic," a senior security official told Reuters.
Army, police and security forces are chasing rebels and warlords in several regions of Tajikistan, said the State Committee on National Security, the nation's security service.
It said the fugitive opposition warlords were Mirzokhuja Akhmadov, Abdullo Rakhimov and Alloviddin Davlatov.
The IMU said it was also angered by Tajikistan's cooperation with U.S.-led NATO troops fighting against the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Instability in Tajikistan adds to volatility in the fertile but impoverished Ferghana valley, where tension was brought to the boil by ethnic clashes in adjacent Kyrgyzstan in June.
(Writing by Dmitry Solovyov; editing by Ralph Boulton)