At least two people were killed in Tajikistan’s troubled eastern mountain town of Khorog on May 21, local news agencies reported, citing unofficial sources. Murky cases of violence are nothing new in the area: Khorog was the epicenter of a military operation in 2012 that killed dozens, including at least 22 locals, but was never clearly explained by authorities.
In one version of today’s events recounted by the Asia-Plus news agency, a shootout started when police attempted to arrest a brother of local warlord Mamadbokir Mamadbokirov, leaving two supporters dead and a police officer in serious condition. In response to that, and possibly some subsequent arrests, angry residents reportedly burned down the police station. Estimates of the crowd varied from several dozen to 700.
Fergana News cited the head of the regional branch of the opposition Social Democratic Party, Alim Sherzamonov, as saying that riot police opened fire “without warning” when they encountered some sort of unofficial local powerbroker. "Spot checks of tinted[-windowed] cars were underway in the city; a car was stopped. The policemen began arguing with the driver, but then the OMON [riot police] came and opened fire without warning,” Sherzamonov said. “One person was killed on the spot and two injured. They opened fire because the guys in the car had informal power in the city. Weapons were used by one side only – the OMON."
The line between officials and warlords is often blurry in Tajikistan. Remote Khorog, the largest town in Mountainous Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast (GBAO), sits on the Afghan border and is a pit stop on smuggling routes for drugs, gems, cigarettes, and possibly people. During the 2012 military operations, authorities tried, and mostly failed, to unseat several local powerbrokers, including Mamadbokirov.
Complicating the central government’s efforts, GBAO is home to minority Pamiri ethnic groups who often do not feel represented by President Emomali Rakhmon, who has, in his 22 years in power, empowered people from his native Khatlon region at the expense of all others. The 2012 violence hardened mistrust.
An assessment conducted last year by Civic Solidarity, a human-rights group with support from the Warsaw-based Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, found indiscriminate violence and disproportionate use of force by government troops during their months-long 2012 campaign in Khorog. Twenty-two locals died; at least 18 soldiers were killed. The report blasted the government for failing to warn civilians about its military campaign in the densely populated town and for not even releasing official numbers of dead. The group also said there had been no impartial investigation or attempt to “identify and hold accountable the officials responsible.”
Since 2012, the region has witnessed sporadic violence. In March, in GBAO’s Rushan District, half a dozen civilians were reportedly injured when police opened fire on them after detaining their relatives for an alleged traffic violation. And last fall, when police and members of the State Committee on National Security tried to arrest an official from the Drug Control Agency, supporters of the drug official reportedly beat up several law enforcement officials and burned their cars.
Late on May 21, British Ambassador Robin Ord-Smith tweeted that he understood the road to Khorog is closed. The city was sealed for weeks during the 2012 operation.
For a good take on those events, see this article by my colleague Joshua Kucera in The Atlantic.
**UPDATE: May 22 –
An Interior Ministry spokesperson, quoted by the Avesta news agency, says police were trying to detain an alleged drug dealer, Munavvar Shanbiev. When police attempted to stop his car, his people started shooting. Police shot back and killed one of Shanbiev’s people, Sabir Hudoihonov, and wounded two others. In the shootout, four law enforcement officers were wounded; one later died. A crowd of young men gathered, set the police car, police station, prosecutor’s office and a court building on fire. ITAR-TASS reports the death toll has climbed to three.
President Rakhmon has sent his national security advisor, Sherali Khairulloev, to Khorog. Khairulloev served as defense minister during the fighting in 2012 and many Pamiris feel his ministry played an outsized role in escalating that conflict.