Eight police officers and two alleged assailants have been killed in separate attacks in and around Tajikistan's capital, prompting the U.S. Embassy to close and sparking fears of further violence in the Central Asian country.
President Emomali Rahmon on September 4 then abruptly dismissed a deputy defense minister who a source said was related to one of the alleged attackers who was killed, prompting speculation of a connection.
The two attacks came amid tension over the prohibition of the predominantly Muslim country's only registered Islamic political party and the brutal beating of a 23-year-old student, allegedly by police who were trying to force him to shave his beard.
Two members of the Interior Ministry's special forces (OMON) and one traffic-police officer were killed in an attack near Dushanbe's international airport early in the morning, authorities said. Another traffic-police officer was hospitalized with gunshot wounds.
Police cordoned off Qarategin, a district on the outskirts of Dushanbe, and conducted a house-to-house search for three suspected attackers, but no arrests had been reported and the motive was unclear.
Hours earlier, gunmen attacked a police station in the town of Vahdat, a town 20 kilometers east of Dushanbe where the bearded student was beaten last week, the Interior Ministry said.
A ministry official told RFE/RL that five police officers and two of the assailants were killed including their leader, a man identified as Ziyoviddin Abdulloev. Three other attackers were wounded, the official said.
A terse announcement posted on President Rahmon's website hours after the attacks said that Deputy Defense Minister Abduhalim Nazarzoda had been dismissed "due to a committed crime." It gave no details.
A source in Tajikistan's State Committee for National Security told RFE/RL earlier that Abdulloev was a relative of Nazarzoda.
Police officials said there was no link between the two attacks, but the U.S. Embassy expressed concern there could be further violence.
"On the morning of September 4, armed gunmen clashed with Tajik police in separate incidents in the city of Dushanbe. Tajik authorities are investigating. Although the significance of these events is unclear, they may be precursors to other acts," the embassy said on its Facebook page.
"The U.S. Embassy has been closed, and official Americans have been advised to shelter in place and not send children to school today, September 4. All U.S. citizens are advised to exercise caution," it said.
The Interior Ministry said the attack in Vahdat was not connected to the beating of Umar Bobojonov, the 23-year-old victim of the alleged police assault, who is in a local hospital and has not regained consciousness. Relatives and friends say he was targeted by police because of his beard.
Tajikistan's staunchly secular government shows little tolerance for anything it perceives as a potential sign of religious extremism, and the authorities occasionally round up bearded men to force them to shave or present them with hefty fines. Bobojonov's case sparked outrage in Vahdat.
Amid long-standing concerns about a spillover of violence from Afghanistan, and newer worries about Tajiks travelling back from Syria after fighting alongside Islamic State militants, the long-ruling Rahmon has taken steps to suppress everyday expressions of faith.
In recent months, the government has banned head scarves for schoolgirls, barred minors from mosques, and forced thousands of students to return home from Islamic schools abroad.
On August 28, the government banned the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan -- ex-Soviet Central Asia's only registered Islamic party -- and gave its leaders 10 days to halt all activities.
The party played an important part in Tajikistan's devastating 1992-97 civil war, and had been in parliament since the 1990s. It was pushed out of the legislature in a March 1 vote marred by fraud allegations after coming under increasing pressure from the authorities.
At Friday Prayers on September 4 in Dushanbe's Central Mosque, Tajikistan's Grand Mufti Saidmuqarram Abdulqodirzoda condemned the party, accusing it of attempts to incite mass disorder across the country. He did not mention the attacks or other specific incidents.
Party leaders and activists say the ban is politically motivated. In March, Rahmon called on prominent citizens in the ex-Soviet republic to outline a long-term "development concept" for Tajikistan focusing on "secularism and national and secular thinking."