DUSHANBE (Reuters) - Tajik government forces on Wednesday demanded rebels hand over four fighters accused of murdering a secret police chief, in return for calling off an offensive in which 42 people have died.
The ultimatum, accompanied by a brief ceasefire, followed a government campaign to capture former warlord Tolib Ayombekov in a remote mountain region bordering Afghanistan.
Twelve soldiers and 30 rebel fighters were killed in the fighting on Tuesday, officials said, three days after Maj.-Gen. Abdullo Nazarov, regional head of the State Committee on National Security (GKNB), was beaten to death.
A resident of Khorog, capital of the Gorno-Badakhshan autonomous region and the closest town to the fighting deep in the Pamir mountains, said shops and markets had reopened and there was no sound of gunfire on Wednesday.
Defense Minister Sherali Khairulloyev has travelled to the region and met rebel fighters, offering amnesty to those who turned in their weapons, a high-ranking official in the security services told Reuters on condition of anonymity.
“The main demand from our side is that the four people directly involved in the killing of Abdullo Nazarov are brought to justice,” the source said. He said Ayombekov was one of the four.
Tens of thousands of people died in Tajikistan during its 1992-97 civil war, in which the Moscow-backed secular government fought a loosely-aligned opposition that included many Islamist fighters.
Ayombekov, who has denied involvement in the murder, fought with the opposition during the civil war and was among the former fighters to receive government jobs in the peace deal that ended the conflict.
The GKNB has said Ayombekov’s gang had for many years been involved in smuggling drugs, tobacco and precious stones. It did not say why it had not arrested him earlier.
President Imomali Rakhmon, in power for 20 years, has only a tenuous grip on Gorno-Badakhshan, where most of the 250,000 population sided with the opposition during the civil war.
Most communications in Khorog were cut off for a second day and roads in and out of the city were blocked.
The resident, able to communicate via a satellite link, said fighting had not spread to the town itself. Khorog is 500 km (300 miles) southeast of Dushanbe.
“We heard shooting, but we didn’t see any troops,” he said. “Last night we checked on our neighbors, and everybody was safe and sound. Nobody has bombed the town.”
Writing by Robin Paxton; Editing by Andrew Roche