ARMED CONFLICT ERUPTS IN TAJIKISTAN
On July 21, a Major General of the State Committee on National Security of Tajikistan (SCNST), Abdullo Nazarov was killed near Khorog, which is the major city of Gorno Badakhshan Autonomus Oblast (GBAO) in Tajikistan (known as the Pamir region). According to an official statement of the SCNST and the Tajik Ministry of Internal Affairs, the General was killed by a local criminal group. The asymmetric response of the Government was a large scale special operation in Khorog by the security and military forces involving armed vehicles and helicopters.
In the early morning of July 24, Tajikistan’s security and military forces started a special operation in the densely populated areas of Khorog without prior notice or evacuation of the local population. The operation was followed by a joint statement of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the Committee on National Security saying that the operation aimed to seize and apprehend military groups responsible for the murder of the SCNST Major General. The Government law enforcement authority reported that, according to the preliminary results of the investigation, General Nazarov was killed by a criminal group in Khorog headed by Tolib Ayembekov who was at that time the deputy head of the Ishkashim frontier post at the Tajikistan-Afghanistan border.
According to the statement, the law enforcement authorities proposed to Ayembekov that all those suspected of participation in the murder of General Nazarov should yield voluntary. However, Ayembekov rejected the offer, claiming that the local population of GBAO does not trust governmental law enforcement bodies and the judicial system, which had discredited itself “by a number of prejudiced acts and decisions.” Furthermore, Ayembekov stated that the Major General himself started a conflict with a few local youngsters and that the conflict resulted in “homicide by accident.”
Nevertheless, the Government started an operation reportedly involving over 3,000 armed personnel, armed vehicles and helicopters in the densely populated areas of Khorog town. Furthermore, all means of communication in the Badakhshan region, including telephone, mobile and internet were blocked by the Government. The only road connecting Khorog with other parts of the country was also blocked. Approximately 30,000 residents of Khorog, including women, children and elderly, were trapped in the conflict.
As a result of the lack of communication and access to the GBAO, the available information about the situation in Khorog has been diverse and often contradictory. Information released by the Government stated that 12 governmental security and military personnel and 30 had been militants killed, and that no casualties were sustained among the civilian population. However, reports by independent media differ and suggest significantly higher figures. A BBC report has suggested over 200 casualties – 100 military personnel and about 100 civilians. The Economist reported “dozens of civilian casualties,” while RFE/RL reported “30 civilians killed.”
Moreover, the lack of communication resulted in different rumors regarding the situation in GBAO including that government forces were bombing Khorog or that rebel groups on the border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan were ready to enter the country and attack governmental forces. The situation is also a source of great anxiety to many people with relatives, friends or colleagues residing in this part of Tajikistan. A number of demonstrations in front of Tajikistan’s Embassies (e.g. in Bishkek, Moscow, and Washington D.C.) were organized by Tajik people living abroad, demanding the Government to halt the military operation and to ensure communication and physical access to the region.
Tajikistan’s opposition parties (i.e. the Social Democratic Party, the Party of Islamic Revival and the Communist Party) made a joint statement condemning the military operation and asking for “peaceful solutions.” After a group of Tajik activists appealed to the OSCE Chairman-in-Office, the U.S. Embassy, the EU Delegation to Tajikistan, the UN Regional Centre for Preventive Diplomacy in Central Asia, the UN representation in Tajikistan appealed to the government with demanding that freedom of speech is ensured and communication with GBAO fully restored as soon as possible. Furthermore, international appeals have been made to the government to ensure access of humanitarian workers to Khorog in order to assess the impact of the military operation on the local population.
Until July 31, the government has partially restored communication with the region and announced a ceasefire. In return, the government requested local military groups to yield their weapons voluntarily. A special joint commission was formed on the ground, including representatives of local government and communities, charged with establishing the death toll among local residents. However, no official figures on the impact on the local population have been reported so far. The situation in GBAO remains tense and unclear.