Eighteen military personnel, including a major and a lieutenant, have died in Turkmenistan amid reports about rising tensions along the border with Afghanistan, where Taliban militants have been on an offensive to capture districts in the region.
Two separate sources told RFE/RL on July 20 that of 18 deceased military personnel, six had been returned to their relatives in the eastern Lebap region that borders Afghanistan.
An RFE/RL correspondent in the region confirmed the information, adding that he visited burial sites of two soldiers in two villages in the region on July 19 and was able to talk to the relatives of other soldiers who were brought to the region in coffins.
Officials told relatives that the soldiers died in a mass traffic accident near Ashgabat, the capital, and did not allow them to see the dead men, who were buried in closed coffins.
It remains unclear if a massive deadly traffic accident with the involvement of military vehicles happened near Ashgabat in recent days as the tightly controlled and isolated Central Asian nation's government is known for its reluctance to talk to media.
The sources, however, told RFE/RL that the bodies were not brought to Lebap from Ashgabat, but from the neighboring Mary region that lies next to Afghanistan and where a major border crossing with Afghanistan, Serhetabat, is located.
One of the sources who is close to the Defense Ministry told RFE/RL that two of the six men buried in Lebap were an army major and a lieutenant.
Neither the Defense Ministry nor the Interior Ministry would comment to RFE/RL about the situation.
There have been traffic accidents in the past in which military personnel were killed. Last September, at least five soldiers died in a traffic accident in the Mary region. Independent media reports said at the time that 11 soldiers died in the accident.
There have also been several deadly incidents along the Turkmen-Afghan border in recent years as well. In June 2018, shoot-outs near Serhetabat left 25 Turkmen soldiers dead.
In recent weeks, Turkmenistan has been sending heavy weaponry, helicopters, and other aircraft to areas along the 800-kilometer Turkmen-Afghan border as the security situation in Afghanistan has deteriorated sharply with Taliban fighters advancing on provincial centers and even some border crossings.
Hundreds of Afghans, including soldiers, local police, and regular citizens, have reportedly fled into other neighboring Central Asia countries, including Tajikistan.
On July 5, the border guard service reported that more than 1,000 Afghan troops had crossed into Tajikistan over the previous 24 hours.
The United States has announced the withdrawal of all of its forces by August 31. Earlier this month, U.S. forces vacated their largest base in Afghanistan at Bagram, north of Kabul.
Amid the pullout, the Taliban have pushed into several areas and now control about one-third of the country’s roughly 400 districts.
The rapid withdrawal of U.S. forces, and the Taliban battlefield successes, are stoking concerns that the Western-backed government in Kabul may collapse.