DUSHANBE – Tajik officials say 12 government troops and 30 militants have been killed as government troops, backed by helicopters, launched an operation targeting a group suspected of involvement in the killing of a top Tajik security official.
Nozirjon Buriev, a spokesman for the State Committee for National Security, told RFE/RL's Tajik Service that some 40 militants, including eight Afghan nationals, were arrested during the military operation in the eastern Badakhshon Province.
Buriev rejected earlier reports about civilian casualties.
"Unfortunately, 12 law enforcement officers were killed and 23 were wounded during the operation," he said. "There were no civilian casualties."
The official said the government operation was targeting Tolib Ayombekov, a former opposition commander and current regional border guard head.
"The armed, illegal group led by Ayombekov has, over the years, been involved in drug trafficking and also tobacco smuggling and the trafficking of minerals. It has also committed numerous, serious crimes," Buriev said. "On July 21st, the group brutally murdered General Abdullo Asadulloevich Nazarov, the regional head of the State Committee for National Security."
Buriev said the military operation was still under way in the provincial capital, Khorugh.
Tajikistan’s Interior Ministry and State Committee for National Security issued a joint statement earlier on July 24 saying special units of the presidential guard, the Interior Ministry, the State Committee for National Security, and an elite security unit called "Alfa" were taking part in the operation.
Local citizens say sounds of gunfire and explosions could be heard as the operation took place.
Reports also say employees of international humanitarian organizations were evacuated to safer locations and local residents were told not to go to work.
Nazarov, 56, was reportedly stabbed to death
while visiting the region's south on July 21.
It was described as the first attack on a high-ranking security officer in Tajikistan in the past few years. Investigators have linked the killing to illegal tobacco-related businesses.
Tobacco is one of the region's key agricultural products, purchased by local tobacco factories and enterprises in neighboring Kyrgyzstan.
Officials said on July 23 that two suspects allegedly involved in Nazarov's murder had been arrested.
The mountainous Badakhshon Autonomous Province -- a sparsely populated region in the Pamir mountain range -- has a population of around 250,000 people and borders Afghanistan, China, and Kyrgyzstan.
The region mainly supported the opposition during Tajikistan's civil war in the 1990s. Reports say local attitudes toward the government remain chilly.
With reporting by AFP and AP