Explosion, Fire Rock Tajik Government Offices in Dushanbe
A mysterious explosion outside Tajikistan's Emergencies Ministry, followed by a fire at the Security Ministry, has shattered the country's mood of relative calm less than a month before parliamentary elections. Tajik authorities are portraying the incidents as accidental and coincidental. However, eyewitnesses dispute official accounts of the incidents.
A Volga sedan, parked outside the Emergencies Ministry in Dushanbe blew up at approximately 10:30 am local time on January 31, killing one person and wounding at least four. The blast was sufficiently powerful that it blew out the windows of nearby buildings. Several hours later a fire broke out at the Security Ministry, also located in central Dushanbe. According to report by the RIA-Novosti news agency, the fire broke out in a room of the Security Ministry building that housed the ministry's archives. Security personnel cordoned off both sites.
Initially, authorities, including Emergencies Minister Mirzo Ziyoyev, characterized the blast as a car bomb, possibly detonated by terrorists. "Most probably several dozen kilograms of an explosive had been stored in the trunk of the Volga car," the Itar-Tass news agency quoted Ziyoyev as saying.
Hours later, though, officials were disavowing a terrorist link to the blast, contending instead that the incident was an unfortunate accident. According to one account, investigators concluded that the explosion was caused by a propane gas leak in the Volga sedan. Meanwhile, government representatives attributed the Security Ministry fire to an electrical malfunction.
Eyewitnesses interviewed by EurasiaNet said they did not believe the car explosion was an accident. They cited the extensive property damage caused by the blast, saying that only explosives could have caused such a powerful explosion.
With parliamentary elections scheduled for February 27, there would appear to be a powerful incentive for President Imomali Rahmonov's administration to downplay the possibility of terrorism, or political violence. Rahmonov has come under criticism from the OSCE in recent weeks for supposedly manipulating the election campaign to ensure that his People's Democratic Party of Tajikistan (PDPT) retains a solid hold on power. Although technically six parties are fielding candidates in the election, only the PDPT has registered all of its parliamentary contenders. Meanwhile, Russian authorities, acting on a Tajik warrant, arrested a leading opposition leader, the Democratic Party's Mahmudruzi Iskanderov, in Moscow in December for allegedly organizing an armed attack against government offices in the Tajikabad region. In addition, independent activists have complained that Rahmonov has bullied independent media outlets into shying away from heavy coverage of the election campaign.
Political analysts do not discount the possibility of a link between the explosion and the election campaign. However, observers stress that there are several potential causes for the blast, in addition to the official explanation. Some suggest that the explosion could be the handiwork of Islamic radicals, calling attention to a US State Department announcement January 14 that cautioned Americans against traveling to the country, citing Islamic radical activity and narcotics trafficking in the region.
"Elements of terrorist groups allied with al Qaeda, including the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and other groups, remain active in Tajikistan and still pose risks to travelers," the announcement said. "The U.S. Government is aware of increased activity of terrorist groups in Central Asia, and recent information suggests that foreign fighters may seek to target Americans in Tajikistan."
Observers also indicate that the explosion could be connected to a possible economic feud. In addition to the Emergencies Ministry building, the headquarters of the state-owned Amonatbank suffered extensive damage in the blast. According to the Tajik news agency Avesta, the top management at the bank was recently dismissed.
Mevlut Katik is a London-based journalist and analyst, contributed reporting for this story. Katik is a former BBC correspondent and also worked for The Economist group.