Tajikistan Battle Leaves Dozens Dead Watch
The capital of Tajikistan's Gorno-Badakhshan autonomous region, Khorog sits along a river that marks the country's border with Afghanistan. Populated by the Pamiri ethnic minority, the region was the stronghold of Islamist rebels during the 1990s war that cost up to 100,000 lives.
Tajikistan's government said it launched the operation against an illegal armed group led by border police commander Talib Ayombekov, a former Islamist rebel authorities have accused of drug smuggling and brutal crimes. Mr. Ayombekov's supporters said the government was attempting solidify its control over the long-restive region.
Details of the battle were sparse. Tajik authorities severed phone and road links with the region on Tuesday. Residents of the Afghan side of the river said they saw Tajik government helicopter gunships strafing Khorog and heard the sound of rocket-propelled grenades and heavy machine guns through the day's fighting.
Nozir Buriyev, spokesman for Tajikistan's State Committee for National Security, said 12 government personnel were killed and 23 injured in the day's fighting. He said government forces detained 40 rebels, including eight Afghan citizens, and killed some 30 others. There have been no civilian casualties, he added.
Radio Ozodi, a Tajik-language arm of the U.S.-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, quoted its Khorog-based reporter as estimating that more than 100 people had died. Local citizens have started setting up barricades with trees and sand bags on city streets, with some of them gathering on Khorog's central square to protest against the military operation, it said.
Ethnically and religiously different from the rest of Tajikistan, Gorno-Badakhshan has long resented central authority. The poorest area of the poorest ex-Soviet republic, the eastern region is also a gateway for the international opium tradebetween Afghanistan, the world's main producer of opiates, and consumers in Russia and western Europe.
"The central government has to be very careful," said Paul Quinn-Judge, the deputy Asia director at the International Crisis Group, a conflict-resolution organization. "A response like this can develop into very bad unintended consequences, especially when the Tajik authorities do not have sufficient security forces or political sophistication."
While small-scale attacks, assassinations and bombings aren't infrequent in Tajikistan, the biggest recent security incident happened in 2010, when fighters loyal to Islamist commander Mullah Abdullah ambushed a convoy of government forces in eastern Tajikistan, killing 25 troops.
Under the terms of the United Nations-brokered peace agreement that ended the Tajikistan civil war, former Islamist rebels were allocated 30% of positions in the administration of President Emomali Rakhmon, a former Communist apparatchik. In recent years, however, Mr. Rakhmon's government increasingly moved to marginalize those former foes.
The current crisis was precipitated on Saturday when one such official—Gen. Abdullo Nazarov, the National Security Committee chief for Gorno-Badakhshan—was ambushed and killed as he was returning to Khorog from the Ishkashim area to the south.
Tajikistan's central government blamed the killing on a second former rebel supporter, Mr. Ayombekov, now Ishkashim's border-police commander. The government said Mr. Ayombekov had ordered the hit to protect his drug- and cigarette-smuggling network.
Mr. Ayombekov, in an interview with Tajikistan's independent Asia-Plus news agency—access to which was blocked inside Tajikistan on Tuesday—denied any responsibility, saying that Gen. Nazarov had been killed in a drunken brawl. Mr. Ayombekov's supporters alleged the government seized on Mr. Nazarov's death, using it as a pretext to go on the offensive against the region's former Islamist leaders.
In a joint statement, the Tajikistan ministry of interior and the National Security Committee said Tuesday that Mr. Ayombekov formed "an illegal armed group that, for several years, has been smuggling narcotics, cigarettes and gems, and has committed a series of severe and extremely severe crimes."
The statement added that a government delegation spent the past three days meeting with Mr. Ayombekov, trying to convince him and his men to surrender their arms and to give up Gen. Nazarov's assassins. Mr. Ayombekov refused those demands, and Tajik media reported that his backers organized a large rally of support for him in Khorog on Monday.
Shortly before dawn Tuesday, the assault on the city began. An Afghan official said late Tuesday he was told Mr. Ayombekov had been killed in the fighting, as was another leading former rebel leader, Commander Yadgar. The official received the account from people in Khorog he contacted over the Afghan cellphone network that reaches the city, he said
Tajik news reports, citing security officials, said Mr. Ayombekov had fled to Afghanistan. Mr. Buriyev, the Tajikistan security services spokesman, said he couldn't confirm those reports and had no information about the commander's whereabouts.
Sakhi Dad Haidari, the security chief of Afghanistan's Badakhshan province that borders Tajikistan's Gorno-Badakhshan, said nobody had crossed the border since the fighting in Khorog began. Following a meeting with a Tajik two-star general on Monday, he added, the Afghan forces in the area have deployed all their available personnel along the frontier to prevent any infiltration.