The mysterious killing of Mirzo Ziyoev, a former opposition commander and cabinet minister, is prompting foreign officials to voice concern about instability in mountainous areas of Tajikistan along the Afghan border. Tajik officials, while attempting to project an image that they remain in control of the security situation, say the rising violence in the South is connected to the return of militants from Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Ziyoev, according to official accounts, was killed July 11 in a gunfight between security agents and members of a narcotics trafficking gang. The official version of Ziyoev's demise was laid out by Deputy Interior Minister Ramazon Rahimov at a news conference.
Rahimov alleged that Ziyoev was a member of a gang involved in an armed attack on a police checkpoint on July 8 in Tavildara, a key transit route linking eastern and western Tajikistan. One official report suggested Ziyoev was trying to take control of the district center. The gang was reportedly led by a long-time Ziyoev acquaintance, Nemat Azizov.
The deputy minister went on to assert that the Azizov/Ziyoev gang was part of an "international terrorist" network that had links to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The group supposedly relied on trafficking profits to fund its militant activities. "The group included several Russian citizens of Chechen origin aiming to transport large amounts of money through Tajikistan to support terrorist groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan," Rahimov claimed.
After the July 8 skirmish, Ziyoev and several other members of the gang were arrested. He was killed as he tried to assist government forces in disarming the remaining gang members, the deputy minister explained.
"Mirzo Ziyoev agreed to cooperate with the military forces, and even agreed to show the places where weapons were stored, and to conduct negations with the rest of the terrorist group," Rahimov said. "However, on the way, members of the Nemat Azizov group attacked the government military forces. Ziyoev was killed and several soldiers of the government agencies were injured."
Ziyoev was a leading commander of United Tajik Opposition fighters who battled forces loyal to President Imomali Rahmon during Tajikistan's 1992-97 civil war. As part of the peace agreement, Ziyoev joined the government as minister for emergency situations. But he lost his ministerial portfolio in 2006, amid a purge carried out by Rahmon of UTO elements within the government.
In recent months, Tajikistan has experienced rising violence that government officials have attributed to drug trafficking, and, now, militants. Tajikistan's porous border is a major smuggling route for drugs originating in Afghanistan, though some analysts have said that a much-touted operation, Poppy 2009, officially designed to weed out drug smugglers in the Rasht Valley and Badakhshan regions, is actually targeting former members of the opposition. Government officials have made repeated public denials that the ongoing Poppy 2009 operation is designed to curb the Islamic militant presence in southern and eastern areas of the country.
Despite the denials, a senior Interior Ministry official, speaking on condition of anonymity to EurasiaNet, said that militant former opposition members may be forging new ties with Taliban fighters who are being driven out of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border area. Poppy 2009, he added, is indeed intended to drive out foreign-based insurgents with links to the former opposition.
"With military operations in Waziristan [Pakistan] and Afghanistan, a majority of the former Tajik opposition leaders who escaped after the [civil] war started coming back to the country. At the end of February 2009, Abdullo Rakhimov, also known as Mullo Abdullo, also came back to the country and started meeting with the former opposition leaders," the official said on July 13.
The Interior Ministry official suggested Ziyoev had established ties to Abdullo's band.
"Mirzo Ziyoev did not agree to join them at the beginning and was working more towards supporting the government, but ultimately [he] joined this group," the official said.
The issue of returning militants to Central Asia is attracting the attention of the international community. Speaking at a news conference in Dushanbe on July 14, Ambassador Pierre Morel, the European Union's Special Representative in Central Asia, said, "the European Union is highly concerned about the situation in Pakistan and its reflection on Tajikistan."
"We support the current politics of the country directed towards eradication of armed terrorist groups and drug traffic to Tajikistan," Morel added.
Whether Ziyoev was really killed during a drug-gang ambush, or died under different circumstances remains a matter of speculation, local political analysts say. But whatever the truth concerning Ziyoev's death, the militant-return issue is one that can no longer be ignored. "This [Ziyoev's death] reflects the geopolitical situation in Pakistan and Afghanistan as many former opposition members are coming back to Tajikistan and seeking bases here," said political analyst Parviz Mullojanov.
Abdugani Mamadazimov, chair of the National Association of Political Scientists, agrees that insurgents are fleeing Pakistan for Tajikistan, using a route they know from the end of the civil war in the 1990s. "When recent operations started in Pakistan [in the Swat Valley], which is located not far from [Badakhshan Province], the terrorists were pressured to move north. In 1999 and 2000, the members of Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan used this corridor to escape from Tajikistan to Pakistan," he said. The Tajik government "created Operation Poppy 2009 to eliminate them."
The situation in the Tavildara District and the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region near the Afghan border remains tense. Locals in Tavildara say the security situation in the district is sketchy. Military operations are ongoing, they add.
Border attacks on Tajik territory by insurgents and drug smugglers have grown more brazen in recent weeks, suggesting the Tajik border service is struggling to cope with the threats. In a July 3 skirmish in the southern Khatlon region, for example, Tajik troops managed to kill two Afghan infiltrators, but 200 fighters escaped and fled back over the border.
Saodat Mahbatsho is the pseudonym for a Tajik journalist.