MOSCOW -- Fighting in the former Soviet republic of Tajikistan intensified yesterday after one of the warring sides seized four tanks and two armored vehicles from a Russian regiment stationed in the southern part of the republic and took as hostages three Russian servicemen, it was reported.
The armed men, who also seized 12 anti-aircraft rockets, demanded that the regiment destroy all its remaining tanks, saying that the hostages would be killed otherwise, the Russian Interfax news service said.
But the hostages were released unharmed later in the day, according to the duty officer at the headquarters of the Russian 201st Motorized Infantry Division based in Dushanbe, Tajikistan's capital. The officer declined to comment further.
The hostages and tanks were taken after 350 fighters from the southern region of Kulyab surrounded the Russian regiment, based in the Kurgan-Tyurbe area not far from the Afghanistan border, according to the Itar-Tass news service.
The Kulyab fighters, loyal to ousted Tajik President Rakhman Nabiyev, are engaged in a bloody interclan conflict with his opponents from Kurgan-Tyurbe.
Gen. Mukhritdin Ashurov, commander of the 201st Division, told Itar-Tass that he plans to send reinforcements to the regiment in Kurgan-Tyurbe as soon as a way is found to cross the Vaksh River. A bridge over the river was blown up.
The captured weapons gave new ferocity to the fighting. "A fierce battle is under way between opposing armed groups in the Kurgan-Tyurbe region," Interfax said.
The fighting, which has gone on for months, has made life in the region precarious. Hundreds of people, many of them peaceful residents, have been killed, and thousands have been forced to abandon their homes. Reports of atrocities are numerous.
"It is a war where cruelty breeds cruelty," the weekly Moscow News newspaper said in its latest edition. "An orgy of terror is only possible because it's easy to procure arms freely and in great quantities."
Much of the weaponry is smuggled into Tajikistan from neighboring Afghanistan.
In another development, officials imposed a 60-day state of emergency in the southern autonomous republic of Kabardino-Balkaria, which borders Georgia. Thousands of demonstrators had clashed with police demanding the release of a detained Muslim militant.
Muslim militants from Kabardino-Balkaria and other regions of the Russian Caucasus, united in the so-called Confederation of Caucasian Mountain People, have been helping separatists from the Georgian region of Abkhazia.