Thousands of protestors have rallied overnight and through a second day in Tajikistan's restive eastern town of Khorog – scene of violent clashes between government troops and rebels last month – demanding Dushanbe withdraw its soldiers.
The rallies began after the unexplained killing of former warlord and local powerbroker Imomnazar Imomnazarov early on August 22. Dushanbe blames Imomnazarov for participating in the July violence, which left dozens dead, but denies any involvement in his murder. Protestors say local residents had fulfilled government demands to disarm and dismantle barricades in the town of 20,000 on the Afghan border, and say the death, which many attribute to government security forces, has violated an uneasy truce.
Shortly after a funeral for Imomnazarov on August 22, protests outside the provincial government headquarters grew violent and security forces reportedly fired into the crowd, wounding two.
Late today, Radio Ozodi reported that government officials had agreed to begin withdrawing and that protestors had agreed to disperse once the troops began leaving.
Large demonstrations are uncommon in Tajikistan and are eerily suggestive of events leading up to the country’s 1992-1997 civil war, when Imomnazarov was a rebel commander with the United Tajik Opposition. Some fear this summer’s violence could herald a return to open warfare.
The fighting started with the July 21 murder of a KGB general in Tajikistan’s Gorno-Badakhshan province, where Khorog is the capital. On July 24, government troops stormed the town demanding a suspect in the general’s death, Tolib Ayombekov, surrender. Radio Free Europe says approximately 70 died, including an unknown number of civilians, in the fighting that followed. Ayombekov, who denied involvement in the general’s murder, surrendered peacefully on August 12.
Many people in the Pamir Mountains are followers of the Ismaili branch of Islam and revere the Aga Khan as their spiritual leader. Representatives of the Aga Khan’s charities had helped broker the July truce. Shortly after Imomnazarov’s death, the head of the Aga Khan Foundation in Tajikistan, Yodgor Faizov, was defiant.
“Imomnazar Imomnazarov was a real man who followed the command of the Aga Khan and laid down his arms,” said Faizov. “He died like a real man. He could have rallied people around himself and armed them, but he did not."
"Today we can be proud that the people of Badakhshan after July 24 did all that was asked of them. We complied with all the authorities' requirements. From now on, the people have every right to demand that troops be withdrawn; the people will decide their own fate. Our young people will themselves bring order to the city.”
An online letter, purportedly by a group of young people from Khorog, has called on President Emomali Rakhmon to stop the violence. "With every passing day, we are increasingly losing hope that peace and stability will prevail in the country again," the statement said.
"[T]he people of Khorog cooperated with the government in every possible way." The death of Imomnazarov, “who spoke up for the peaceful resolution of the conflict and who voluntarily lay down his arms in the name of peace and stability on our common land … could provoke a further escalation of the situation and result in heavy casualties.”
Social networkers are fervently discussing Imomnazarov's apparent assassination. Some don’t believe the government could be so careless as to kill him given the tensions in Khorog. Others see no other explanation. In any case, the death has increased talk of protracted conflict.
“What kind of an idiot could kill the person at a moment when even a minor altercation may lead to a new civil war in Tajikistan?” wrote a visitor to Radio Ozodi, in comments reprinted by Global Voices.