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Smuggling at heart of Tajikistan violence

DUSHANBE, Tajikistan, July 31 (UPI) -- The violence that led to the deaths of 48 people in Tajikistan was triggered by the arrest of rebels on cigarette smuggling charges, the government says.

The Tajikistan Interior Ministry Sunday gave its first official account of what led up to the slaying of regional security chief Gen. Abdullo Nazarov in the country's eastern Gorno-Badakhshan autonomous region and the resulting crackdown on Islamist rebels there that resulted in a wave of violence.

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The ministry said 17 members of the security forces, 30 militants and one civilian were killed in clashes in and around the Gorno-Badakhshan capital of Khorog last week.

Authorities said their investigation determined Nazarov was killed July 21 by a group of 15-20 rebels in reprisal for anti-smuggling arrests, the Central Asian News Service reported.

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Those carrying out the slaying were identified as members of an illegal armed group led by Tolib Ayombekov, a former warlord who battled the Russian-backed Dushanbe government during a 5-year civil war that ended in 1997 with a United Nations-brokered peace agreement.

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Prosecutors said Ayombekov ordered the death of Nazarov after the June 5 arrests of alleged cigarette smugglers at the border with Afghanistan. Some 538 cartons of cigarettes worth $145,000 were confiscated while the driver of the car they were found in and four others were taken into custody.

Officials said they determined Ayombekov was the owner of the tobacco but that he refused to appear for questioning.

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The killing of the regional security chief was in reprisal for the incident, the government claimed, noting that rebel groups routinely smuggle drugs, cigarettes and from contraband from war-torn Afghanistan to fund their operations.

In a bid to avoid further escalation of tensions in the region, a government commission of 20 government and community leaders negotiated with the warlord's "gang of young criminals" for three days, during which they unsuccessfully tried to persuade them to lay down their arms.

Ayombekov, however, "flatly rejected the proposal and in fact began to mobilize individuals and criminal mercenaries from among the citizens of neighboring Afghanistan to armed resistance to the authorities," the government said.

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The situation prompted the government to launch a military operation in Gorno-Badakhshan to arrest Ayombekov, which resulted in intense fighting.

Officials said Sunday the situation in the region was tense but under control with negotiations with the rebels ongoing. Some of them had begun to lay down arms, it said, while Ayombekov was still at large.

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"Persons found guilty of the murder of General Nazarov, as well as the instigators of an armed confrontation between government representatives, will be prosecuted," the interior ministry said.

The violence brought calls for calm from around the world.

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast voiced regret

Saturday over the casualties and "expressed hope that tranquility and security would come back to the society," the Fars News Agency reported.

Irish Deputy Prime Minister Eamon Gilmore -- the chairman-in-office of the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe -- likewise called for a peaceful resolution to the conflict.

"This outbreak of violence, which has left dozens dead, is of great concern and I deeply regret the loss of life," he said. "I am particularly concerned by reports of civilian casualties and I urge all parties to exercise restraint."

Gilmore also expressed apprehension for the safety of personnel working for international organizations in Gorno-Badakhshan.

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