Pamiri people bury those killed during July 24 military action in Khorog, Tajikistan.

Story highlights

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

CNN  — 

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.

Lola Kassamali, a Tajik who now lives in Seattle, Washington, said she had not been able to reach relatives in Khorog for three days.

“I don’t know what to do,” she said.

The cutoff of cell phone and Internet service began late last month. Aid workers, some of whom had satellite telephones, were evacuated.

Read more: Deadly clashes erupt in Tajikistan

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 has accused Ayombekov’s fighters in the July 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 in late July, 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 Ayombekov, who is the suspected leader of a ring that smuggled tobacco, precious jewels and drugs, the Central Asian News Service said.

Until mid July, 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 by a five-year civil war that ended in 1997 as well as widespread corruption and poverty, which continue today.

Read more: Clinton discusses human rights, regional security in Tajikistan

Tensions remain high between the Tajik government in Dushanbe and the warlords– so-called Komandos – of Gorno-Badakshan, who are members of the Pamiri ethnic minority.

The region was a stronghold of rebels during the civil war, which claimed thousands of lives. The war divided people along ethnic and regional lines, and the Pamiri largely sided with the opposition.

A United Nations-brokered peace plan in 1997 left President Emomali Rakhmon’s secular government in place but gave some of his opponents, including Ayombekov, official jobs.

Rakhmon, who has Moscow’s support, has sought to consolidate power and stamp out remnants of the former opposition-turned-warlords.

Khorog residents said they had received no warning of the fighting that began three weeks ago. The official from the Badakhshan administration said residents told him they were not siding with anyone – they just wanted safe passage out of Pamir.

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.