Tajik borders tightened after deadly Islamist jailbreak

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Twenty-five Islamic militants serving long jail terms escaped from prison in Tajikistan, killing guards and sparking fears they could cross into neighbouring Afghanistan, officials said Monday.

Under cover of night, the inmates escaped from a detention centre of Tajikistan's State Committee of National Security in the capital Dushanbe late Sunday, attacking guards and seizing their arms, they said.

"As a result, one of the guards was killed, 25 armed inmates escaped from jail, changing into fatigues," a representative of the committee told AFP, citing a statement.

The organizers of the prison break -- two Tajiks and a Russian -- killed a 31-year-old guard and seriously wounded another two while releasing 22 fellow inmates, said the committee's first deputy chairman, Kasym Gaffarov.

The militants also seized arms and munitions from the prison's armoury and killed four guards at a nearby detention centre of the justice ministry early Monday before fleeing, a senior interior ministry officer said.

Officials speaking to AFP on condition of anonymity described the group of Russian, Tajik and Afghan inmates as Islamic militants convicted of terrorism and drug trafficking, many of whom were serving sentences ranging from 30 years to life.

Military officials, speaking to AFP on condition of anonymity, expressed concern that the 25 criminals may attempt to illegally cross the border into northern Afghanistan.

Border guards were put on high alert to prevent the escaped militants from leaving the country, a border guard spokesman told AFP.

Posts on the border with Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and China have also been put on high alert, the spokesman said.

The interior ministry official said the escapees went to the Rasht Valley in the east of the country, adding that most of them are from that region and know it well.

During their flight to the east the militants engaged in a skirmish with police at a checkpoint around 70 kilometres (45 miles) from Dushanbe before disappearing into the mountains, the official said.

Authorities have beefed up security across airports, railway stations and roads and were planning to deploy armoured vehicles and special forces in the east to recapture the escapees, officials said.

Tajikistan, where a civil war between Islamist forces and backers of Tajik President Emomali Rakhmon followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, shares a porous 1,300-kilometre (800-mile) border with Afghanistan.

The escaped militants include nationals of Afghanistan and six Russian citizens, all of them natives of the volatile North Caucasus region, where Russian authorities are battling an Islamist insurgency.

Last Friday Tajikistan's Supreme Court handed down prison sentences of 19.5 years to each of the five Russians, while the sixth was sentenced to 30 years in prison.

The men include members of militant group the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, who had been accused of seeking to topple the government in a riot in the east of the country last summer.

Earlier Monday, Rakhmon convened an extraordinary meeting with law enforcement and military officials as the country requested assistance from Russia and Afghanistan in recapturing the escapees.

The head of the Russian federal security service, Alexander Bortnikov, vowed that Russia would give full assistance to the Tajik side in "tracking down and arresting" the escaped inmates, Russian news agencies reported.

The United States, which is fighting Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan, has been sending non-lethal supplies for its troops there through Tajikistan and is planning to build a 10-million dollar training centre for armed forces in the country to boost its hand in the region.

© 2010 AFP

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