“Tajik soldiers are gaining the upper hand over armed opposition groups along the Afghan border, with a growing number of rebels surrendering their weapons in hopes of gaining amnesty,” according to reports:
Word of the fading resistance in the Gorno-Badakhshan provincial capital, Khorog, eased fears of greater instability in the impoverished ex-Soviet nation, which still bears the scars of a five-year civil war in the 1990s that is estimated to have killed more than 60,000 people. Tajikistan’s location also makes it strategically important to the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan.
Violence erupted last Tuesday in Khorog as the authorities moved to arrest Tolib Ayombekov (right), a one-time warlord suspected of involvement in the July 21 killing of Abdullo Nazarov, a general in Tajikistan’s national intelligence service.
After Nazarov was stabbed and killed, the government pinned the blame on Ayombekov, a former opposition commander who held a senior post with the region’s Tajik border guards, RFE/RL reports:
Government forces subsequently launched a series of military strikes targeting Ayombekov that have left dozens dead. Although the Tajik government says it has halted military operations, the remote Gorno-Badakhshan region — an isolated, mountainous area that shares borders with Afghanistan, China, and Kyrgyzstan — remains a hotbed of unrest.
The government offensive is the worst outbreak of violence since the country’s civil war, which killed some 100,000 people, the Wall Street Journal reports:
Just before Tuesday’s offensive, the authoritarian government of President Emomali Rakhmon, a former Communist apparatchik, severed all road and communications links with Gorno-Badakhshan, imposing an information blackout that is still in effect. Western tourists who escaped from Khorog in recent days and were interviewed in the capital, Dushanbe, provided rare firsthand accounts of what happened in the remote mountainous region.
“These are the last shots of our civil war. Ayombekov defied the state, and no state that respects itself could tolerate that,” says Abdulghani Mamadazimov, director of the Association of Political Scientists of Tajikistan. “We must be clear: Those are not rebels. Those are drug barons, and the local population knows it.”
Ayombekov was one of many opposition fighters in the civil war who continue to wield substantial local influence and defy the central government. Authorities also accused Ayombekov of drug-trading and smuggling tobacco and precious stones.
Ayombekov has denied the accusations and said the government is using Nazarov’s death as a pretext for cementing its grip over Gorno-Badakhshan, a thinly populated province.
“Tajikistan’s two decades of independence have been characterized by violence, poverty, autocratic leadership, and geostrategic vulnerability,” says Freedom House. “The 1992–97 civil war between the communist-remnant government and the Islamist-led United Tajik Opposition (UTO) resulted in roughly 50,000 deaths, making it the deadliest conflict in the post-Soviet space, excluding Chechnya.”
Human rights and civil society groups have expressed concern about the situation in Gorno-Badakhshan, while Tajik opposition figures have called for an end to the government offensive, sharing analysts’ fears that the conflict may spark a wider insurgency.
“The stronger side must show its strength by stopping the military campaign,” said Muhiddin Kabiri, head of Tajikistan’s Islamic Revival Party, the main political opposition to Rakhmon’s rule. “It’s best to start negotiations with these armed people now, before they have turned into Taliban. An escalation of the conflict may lead to the involvement of Afghan armed groups, expanding it quantitatively and qualitatively.”
The IRP has demanded an investigation into the death of Sabzali Mamadrizoyev, its Gorno-Badakhshan section leader:
The party says it believes Mamadrizoyev was detained by law enforcement officers after he delivered a speech at a rally held in Khorog on the day before fighting broke out. It claimed in a statement that he was severely beaten and later shot dead.
“He made critical remarks during the meeting, but they were within reason and lawful,” party leader Mukhiddin Kabiri said.
RFE/RL’s Robert Coalson and Tajik Service Director Sojida Djakhfarova offer an explainer and video analysis on the economic, political, and strategic importance of Gorno-Badakhshan. CNN interviews RFE/RL freelancer Mirzojalol Shojamol on the communications blackout in the region. Follow Radio Ozodi online for additional updates on Tajikistan, and for breaking news follow RFE/RL on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr and Pinterest.