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Fighting Kills 21 in Tajikistan

March 25, 1998

DUSHANBE, Tajikistan (AP) _ Opposition fighters captured several dozen government soldiers in fighting that killed 21 people in this former Soviet republic, Tajik officials said today.

However, the mostly Muslim opposition denied holding soldiers captive and blamed the government for provoking the two days of fighting that ended today.

The clash was one of the most violent since the government and the opposition ended a five-year civil war last summer.

The government said the incident began early Tuesday, when gunmen ambushed police heading to arrest alleged criminals on the outskirts of the town of Kofarnikhon, about 20 miles east of the capital, Dushanbe.

Later in the day, opposition militants besieged a military garrison in Kofarnikhon. The fighting continued until the government troops ran out of ammunition today and were forced to withdraw, the Interfax news agency quoted unidentified Interior Ministry officials as saying.

Interior Ministry officials said the opposition had captured dozens of troops, Interfax reported.

But opposition leader Said Abdullo Nuri disputed the government’s account, saying the clash was provoked by the arrival of about 200 government troops at a hotel near Kofarnikhon where opposition fighters were staying. He also denied that the fighters were holding government troops.

Citing government figures, Nuri said that 21 people died in the clash: 15 government troops, two opposition fighters and four civilians.

An international monitoring group, which includes representatives from the United Nations and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, condemned the attack, which it blamed on two opposition field commanders.

Despite last year’s peace deal, there have been frequent fighting between government forces and rebel forces. The opposition has said most of the skirmishes were provoked by groups of militants operating outside its control.

A reconciliation commission made up of officials from both sides has been working to stabilize the impoverished former Soviet republic. Tajik President Emomali Rakhmonov recently appointed several opposition leaders to key Cabinet posts.

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