Al-Qaeda linked Islamic militants armed with automatic weapons ambushed a military convoy killing at least 40 Tajik government troops including five officers in the mountainous Rasht area, close to the Afghan border.
The convoy was ambushed in the Kamarob Gorge in Rasht district, some 250 kilometres east of capital Dushanbe yesterday at 12:30 pm local time, Tajik Defence Ministry said in a statement.
It, however, put the toll at 23 and said several others were wounded. Quoting official sources independent 'Azia Plyus' (Asia Plus) agency reported that at least 40 servicemen of the Ministry of Defence, including five officers, were killed and more than ten others wounded in the attack.
The attackers were suspected to be led by Mullo Abdullo and militants from the banned Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) which is based in Pakistan's tribal areas. The Tajik authorities say Abdullo may have entered the country from Afghanistan recently.
President Emomali Rahmon, who is currently in New York to attend the 65th session of the UN General Assembly, has ordered the Ministry of Interior, the State Committee for National Security (GKNB) and the Ministry of Defence to track down and punish the masterminds and executors of the crime, Tajik Presidential Press Service said.
The soldiers of the ambushed convoy were going to replace troops deployed on road-blocks in the remote valley, who are manning a high vigil to nab al-Qaeda linked terrorists.
The attack on the convoy comes weeks after 25 hardcore militants escaped in a daring jailbreak from a high-security prison in Dushanbe. The militants are suspected to have made their way to the Rasht mountains where the militant groups have set up safe havens.
A defence ministry spokesman said that in addition to Tajik nationals, the ambushers also contained militants and mercenaries from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Chechnya.
Most Islamic fighters in Tajikistan gave up arms after the end of civil war in the former Soviet republic in June 1997, but the former opposition commander Mullo Abdullo did not lay down arms and was convicted for killing of six UN military monitors in eastern Tajikistan in 1998.
Mullo Abdullo had gone to neighbouring Afghanistan to join the Taliban in 2000 but was believed to have been captured and jailed. He has reportedly returned to remote Tavildara district in eastern Tajikistan with about 100 fighters in May 2009.