Tajikistan's Interior Ministry has announced that four suspected members of the banned Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) were killed and one alleged militant arrested in a security operation in a religiously conservative region of northern Tajikistan.
The incident in Isfara, in the restive Ferghana Valley that straddles the nearby borders of Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, highlights security concerns over the IMU's activities in the region.
Tajik Interior Ministry spokesman Mahmadullo Asadulloev told RFE/RL on October 19 that one security officer was wounded overnight during a three-hour raid on a house where the militants, all believed to be Tajik citizens, were hiding.
Asadulloev said the Interior Ministry forces who conducted the operation seized a small cache of weapons and training material.
"A machine gun, three Kalashnikovs, two Makarov guns, and many bullets were seized during the operation, along with the group's instructions on carrying out terrorist acts and making bombs," he said.
Asadulloev said the militants were all from the banned IMU, which originated in the Ferghana Valley in neighboring Uzbekistan.
Isfara city prosecutor Orif Umarov told RFE/RL's Tajik Service that the identities of the men will not be made public until an investigation is completed. Umarov said police and security forces had been hunting the men since 2006.
They were wanted by the police in connection with a number of serious crimes, including their alleged involvement in the killing of high-ranking police officer Saidumar Saidov in Isfara last month.
Umarov did not rule out the possibility that security personnel would find more militants' bodies during the ongoing search of the house, which was almost completely destroyed during the raid.
A Volatile District
The overnight raid came days after reports on October 15 that armed men had crossed from Isfara District into Kyrgyz territory following a shoot-out with Kyrgyz border guards. It is not clear whether the incidents might be related or involve the same armed men.
Tajikistan's northern Sughd Province is considered relatively liberal, with the exception of its religiously conservative Isfara District in the province’s east.
Since early 2009, Tajik security forces have been conducting searches for more than 20 IMU members in Isfara.
Tajik authorities have blamed the IMU for a number of attacks carried out against police officers in the city of Isfara and the wider district in recent years.
Three police officers were seriously wounded in separate attacks in the district in August and September 2008. Another policeman was shot in the town in April 2009.
The Isfara prosecutor's office has estimated that more than 80 IMU members have been identified in Isfara District since 1997, the highest concentration of IMU members in Sughd Province, and that roughly half of them have been arrested.
Although Isfara is far from the Afghan border, Tajik authorities believe that a number of IMU members from the northern Tajik town fled to Afghanistan in the late 1990s, before the Taliban in Kabul was overthrown in 2001.
The source said some 15 militants from Isfara have been killed in bombings and operations in Afghanistan and Central Asian countries.
However, Tajik authorities stressed that they do not believe there has been an increase in IMU activities or membership in Isfara in recent months, and said that the wanted men joined the militant group many years ago.
The IMU, which originated from the Ferghana Valley, was formed in 1998 as an Islamic opposition to the Uzbek President Islam Karimov.
During the Tajik civil war in 1992-97, IMU leader Juma Namangani fled to Tajikistan's eastern Tavildara district, then the base for Tajikistan's Islamic opposition forces.
RFE/RL’s Tajik Service contributed to this report.