JAPAN's foremost academic expert on the former Soviet Union has been shot dead. The United Nations observer mission of which he was part was ambushed by rebels unwilling to accept the peace process in Tajikistan.
Yutaka Akino, 48, a graduate of Waseda University in Tokyo and former postgraduate at the School of Slavonic Studies, London, gave up an associate professorship at Tsukuba University to take part in Japan's contribution to the building of peace and democracy in the former Soviet republic. He had been in Tajikistan since April.
Tajikistan has been torn by a civil war since the break-up of the Soviet Union. Government forces have been fighting an Islamic-led opposition. A peace deal was brokered under international auspices last year. However, armed attacks, kidnappings for ransom and ambushes are still being carried out by extremists who want to disrupt the peace process.
The car Akino was travelling in last week with two other UN observers and their driver/interpreter was ambushed between checkpoints 200 kilometres east of the capital, Dushanbe. They were shot and their car wrecked.
Tajik president Emomali Rahmonov immediately dismissed two senior deputy defence ministers for failing to guarantee safety.
Leaders of the United Tajik Opposition, the "official" opposition which is party to the peace process, condemned the killings. A commission representing the Tajik government, the United Tajik Opposition and the UN has been set up to investigate the killing.
Japanese foreign minister Keizo Obuchi said that he was "greatly shocked" but that "Japan will continue to contribute towards peace-building" in Tajikistan.
Tributes to Akino from colleagues and students note that he was known as an "active and aggressive" researcher, "who was not afraid to carry out fieldwork in trouble-spots".