ASHGABAT (Reuters) -- Turkmenistan's president Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov says members of the security forces were killed in clashes in the capital, Ashgabat, last week.
It was Berdymukhammedov's first comment on the incident which authorities said was a major operation against drug traffickers, but which independent websites say was a battle between security forces and armed rebels.
The president, in a statement shown on state television late on September 15, offered his condolences to the families of those killed in the clashes, the first official acknowledgement of deaths among security forces.
"As you know, a few days ago our forces eliminated a major criminal group involved in the drugs trade," he said. "To our greatest sorrow, there were losses among law enforcement agents during the clashes with armed bandits."
Independent websites, most of them blocked for Turkmen users in a nation where information is tightly controlled by the state, have questioned the official version of events.
Websites such as chrono-tm.org said nine people were killed in a three-day battle on the outskirts of the capital.
One website, tm-iskra.org, quoted a source as saying a group of "radically minded opposition activists" were behind the event, but it remained unclear how the violence had started.
None of the information could be independently verified.
Residents of Ashgabat reported hearing heavy gunfire and explosions near the northern residential district of the city at the weekend.
Gas-rich Turkmenistan, seen by Western investors as an alternative source of energy for European markets, is tightly run by the government which allows little opposition to state policy and controls domestic media.
The predominantly Muslim nation, which borders Afghanistan and Iran, has been stable compared to some of its more volatile Central Asian neighbors and has sought to open up since the death of its absolute leader, Saparmurat Niyazov, in late 2006.
Criticized in the West for human rights violations, Niyazov ran Turkmenistan as a personal fiefdom for 21 years and locked up his opponents. Berdymukhammedov has sought to distance himself from Niyazov's policies and promised liberal reform.