At least nine Tajik soldiers have been killed and 20 wounded in an operation against a local warlord in Tajikistan's eastern Badakhshan province, local media are reporting. An unspecified number of militants have also been killed and BBC’s Russian service says there are civilian casualties.
Sources in Khorog, capital of the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast (GBAO) in the Pamir Mountains, reported a heavy military buildup on July 23 in response to the weekend murder of a top security official. General Abdullo Nazarov, head of the regional branch of the GKNB (successor to the KGB), was reportedly stabbed on July 21 by a group of men who dragged him from his car as he returned from a business trip to Ishkashim, about a two hours’ drive south of Khorog. Both towns lie on the porous Afghanistan border and along major drug-trafficking routes.
The official story, so far, is that the chief of the Ishkashim border unit, former opposition field commander Tolib Ayombekov, arranged the murder. According to this version, he is the head of an organized criminal group involved in tobacco smuggling and other crimes. When he resisted arrest, special forces from the GKNB, Interior Ministry and Defense Ministry entered Khorog.
What is really happening is hard to tell, however, as officials have also cut the region off from Internet and phone communications, while blocking a top independent source of online news, Asia-Plus, throughout the country.
Shortly before Asia-Plus was cut off, Ayombekov told the news outlet that Nazarov’s murder was “an accident” but central authorities want to use the general’s death “to purge the region of former field commanders.”
On July 24, in another unusual incident that may or may not be related, the chief prosecutor for a district near Khorog was injured in a car bombing in the city.
Since 1997, when a peace treaty ended Tajikistan’s civil war and awarded senior positions to former opposition commanders, President Emomali Rakhmon has slowly winnowed out those opposition members and seized almost total control. But his grip on restive Badakhshan, which mostly allied with the opposition during the civil war, has never been secure. Some analysts will most likely interpret the latest events as an attempt to consolidate his power in a region where residents are notoriously suspicious of his rule. (In Moscow, Pamiris – a minority group concentrated in GBAO -- reportedly protested the military actions, calling them “ethnic cleansing.”)
The fighting is the most intense since government forces battled militants in the Rasht Valley in 2010. Then, it took months, and scores of Tajik troop deaths, to contain militants linked to a high-profile prison break in Dushanbe in which 25 escaped. Authorities blamed much of the violence on another civil war-era commander, Abdullo Rakhimov (a.k.a. Mullo Abdullo), who was reportedly killed in early 2011.
Tajik officials often link alleged militants to Afghanistan (which earns attention and sympathy internationally), though they rarely provide convincing evidence. Now, too, local press reports have started mentioning an Afghanistan connection, though the information is unsourced.
The central government has long had trouble controlling Badakhshan, a mountainous region where minority Ismaili Muslims are predominant, and requires foreigners traveling there, including journalists, to receive special permission. The region is considered one of the major smuggling routes for Afghan narcotics and Western officials are convinced the transit is abetted by local officials in both Badakhshan and Dushanbe. With information so tightly controlled, and the Afghan militant story so widely repeated, the idea that officials are fighting over something bigger than they say – including, possibly, turf or drug-trafficking routes – is hard to rule out.