Government forces clash with opposition fighters in Gorno-Badakshan region
At least 42 people are killed
Tensions run high in the area; ethnic Pamiris have been at odds with the government
The region was a stronghold for Islamist rebels during a bloody civil war
Thousands of residents in the capital of the Gorno-Badakshan region in eastern Tajikistan were trapped Thursday for a third consecutive day without any connection to the outside world, government officials, aid workers and witnesses told CNN.
Fighting erupted Tuesday in an autonomous region of Tajikistan after central government forces moved in on a former opposition warlord believed to be behind the killing of a top security general.
“I don’t know what to do,” she said.
The cutoff of communications began Tuesday, when fighting erupted in the autonomous region – also known as Pamir – after central government forces attempted to arrest a former opposition warlord believed to have been behind the killing of a top security general.
Residents of Khorog, the capital of the province of Gorno-Badakhshan, awakened Tuesday to helicopters carrying government forces and flying low over the city near the compound of the former warlord, Tolib Ayombekov, witnesses said.
Communication lines, including cell phones and Internet service, were severed. Aid workers, some of whom had satellite telephones, were evacuated.
The government accuses Ayombekov’s fighters in last weekend’s killing of Maj. Gen. Abdullo Nazarov, head of the regional branch of the State Committee on National Security, which is a successor to the Soviet KGB.
A group of unidentified people stopped Nazarov’s car near Khorog, according to Ria-Novosti, a Russian state-run news service. He was pulled from the car, stabbed several times and died en route to a hospital, according to Ria-Novosti.
A spokesman for the government in the Tajik capital of Dushanbe said the killing was “the last straw.” He said the warlords were troublemakers.
In his last public appearance before he went into hiding early this week, Ayombekov told reporters that Nazarov’s security detail had failed to protect him. It was not clear what he meant by that.
Apparently, Ayombekov’s forces were prepared for Tuesday’s arrival of government forces looking for him. Residents described continuous gunfire in the city, which borders Afghanistan.
The Central Asian News Agency said Ayombekov refused to surrender to police and instigated the attack against government forces.
At least 12 soldiers and 30 opposition fighters were killed in the fighting, said a statement from Tajikistan’s security service on Tuesday.
Police arrested two suspects but were still seeking Tolib Ayombekov, the suspected leader of a smuggling ring of tobacco, precious jewels, and drugs, said the Central Asian News Service.
Until last week, Ayombekov had been working for Nazarov overseeing border security between Tajikistan and Afghanistan, an administration official in Badakhshan told CNN. The official did not want to be identified because he is not allowed to speak to the news media.
Tajikistan gained independence with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 but has been troubled ever since by bloody war, widespread corruption and poverty.
Tensions remain high between the Tajik government in Dushanbe and the people of Gorno-Badakshan, who are of the Pamiri ethnic minority.
The region was a stronghold of Islamist rebels during a five-year civil war in the 1990s that claimed thousand of lives. The war also divided people along ethnic and regional lines, and the Pamiris, by and large, sided with the opposition.
A United Nations-brokered peace plan left President Emomali Rakhmon’s secular government in place but gave some of his Islamist opponents official jobs.
But Rakhmon, backed by Moscow, has sought to consolidate power and stamp out remnants of radical Islam.
Khorog residents said they received no warning of Tuesday’s fighting. People panicked as gunfire rang out.
Journalist Mirzojalol Shohjamolov said a group of residents gathered in front of Khorog Square, near the government building, with signs that said: “Stop military actions in Khorog.”
Protests against the military operation were also held in New York, Moscow and the Kyrgyzstan city of Bishkek.
In New York, Rustam Nazrisho vowed to demonstrate daily in front of the United Nations until the government of Tajikistan restores communications and offers safe passage out of the region to residents who have been caught up in the violence.