DUSHANBE, TAJIKISTAN (AFP) - The Islamic State extremist group on Monday (July 30) claimed an attack that killed four foreign cyclists in Tajikistan in what was originally reported as a hit-and-run road accident.
The victims, two Americans, a Swiss and Dutch citizen, were struck by a car and attacked on Sunday (July 29) while on a popular cycle route in the Danghara district, about 100 kilometres south of the capital Dushanbe.
"(The suspects) had knives and firearms," said interior minister Ramazon Hamro Rahimzoda, adding that two other cyclists, Swiss and Dutch nationals, were injured and hospitalised.
"One tourist received a knife wound and is being given medical assistance. The victim's condition is stable," said Rahimzoda, without mentioning a nationality.
Another cyclist with the group, a French citizen, escaped without injury and had been questioned by police, he added.
In a statement published Monday, ISIS said that a "detachment from the soldiers of the Caliphate" had carried out the attack against "citizens of Crusader coalition countries," according to intelligence monitor SITE.
Five people suspected of involvement in the attack were killed by police and at least four suspects detained, according to separate police accounts.
Among the dead suspects was 21-year-old Jafariddin Yusufov, the owner of the Daewoo Leganza car that struck the tourists on Sunday afternoon, local officials said.
A Belgian cyclist who said he arrived at the scene after the attack told Flemish broadcaster VRT that he saw "several cyclists on the ground. Some were completely shocked".
"When I asked what had happened, the first thing someone said was that they had been hit by a car and that the people who had come out had started stabbing them with knives," cyclist Nicolas Moerman said.
The Dutch foreign ministry told AFP on Monday that one of the dead tourists was a 56-year-old man who was cycling the route with his 58-year-old partner, without providing names.
The cyclists were travelling on a road that adjoins the famous Pamir Highway, a Soviet-era road surrounded by stunning mountain scenery.
'Act of terror'?
"We can't say if it is an act of terror," Rahimzoda said earlier on Monday.
"We are considering all possibilities," he added but said that "state institutions are being guarded... to provide safety for citizens and tourists".
The US embassy in Tajikistan confirmed that two of the fatalities were American citizens.
The Swiss foreign ministry on Monday told AFP that Switzerland "calls for every effort to be made to shed light on this serious incident".
"If it is established that this was a terrorist attack, it will be noted in (Switzerland's) future travel advice for Tajikistan," said ministry spokeswoman Silvia Muller while noting that the motive for the attack was still unclear.
A French diplomatic source told AFP that the country's embassy in Tajikistan was "engaged in facilitating the return" of the French survivor of the attack.
Tajikistan's President Emomali Rakhmon sent notes of condolence to the US, Switzerland and the Netherlands over the deaths and called for increased security throughout the country at a special meeting on Monday with the country's law enforcement chiefs.
Tajik authorities had declared 2018 "a year of tourism" in the former Soviet republic.
In June, Rakhmon said that state officials found to be soliciting bribes from tourists would be deemed "traitors" and fired from their positions.
Visitor numbers had quadrupled in the first five months of 2018 compared the same period last year, he said.
Tajikistan is the poorest of the ex-Soviet republics and has been ruled by Rakhmon, 65, since 1992.