In the wake of US forces dropping a giant bomb on a Islamic State group camp in Afghanistan, unnamed officials in Tajikistan intimated to the media that there were numerous Tajik militants among the dead.
RFE/RL’s Tajik service, Radio Ozodi, cited security sources as saying that among that the main figures to perish was Shermahmad Safarov, who they described as the head of the Tajik contingent of Islamic State in Afghanistan.
The claim was politically explosive.
Safarov is also said to be the brother of Nazarmuhammad Safarov, a former top Tajik Defense Ministry official accused by the government of involvement in what the government says was an attempted coup in September 2015.
Since the authorities justified their crackdown on the opposition Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan, or IRPT, by linking them — in the absence of any evidence — to the purported coup, the implication was clear: the IRPT is linked to the Islamic State.
Radio Ozodi’s report cited the unnamed officials as claiming that Safarov fled from Tajikistan to Afghanistan in October 2015 in a bid to join the Taliban. According to this version, in 2016, Safarov fell out with the Taliban and instead decided to join the Islamic State group.
Others are offering alternate accounts, however.
Alim Sherzamonov, a leading figure with the Social-Democratic Party of Tajikistan in the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region, or GBAO, told EurasiaNet.org he has long known Safarov, back from the days of the civil war of the 1990s.
Safarov was an active fighter within the ranks of the armed opposition, and it was back then that he earned the Lion of Yazgulam monicker, inspired by the name of his home district in the Pamirs.
State media in Tajikistan are under strict instructions to start always referring to President Emomali Rahmon by his full title: The Founder of Peace and National Unity — Leader of the Nation.
A worker for a state media told RFE/RL’s Tajik service, Radio Ozodi, that the new rule has been in force as of last week.
“Previously, we were permitted to use the abbreviated form — Leader of the Nation — instead of the long form: The Founder of Peace and National Unity — Leader of the Nation,” the source told Radio Ozodi.
Farrukh Ziyoyev, director of the Tajikistan state radio broadcaster, said that this requirement was in line with the December 2015 law titled, fittingly enough, “The Founder of Peace and National Unity — Leader of the Nation.” The legislation also envisions criminal sanctions for any deemed to be insulting the president.
Earlier this month, independent news website Akhbor reported that a man in northern Tajikistan was arrested and potentially faces several years in jail for being slightly disrespectful to the Rahmon, the Founder of Peace and National Unity — Leader of the Nation.
“In public view, he took a picture of Rahmon down from the wall, he threw it to the ground and said: ‘You have everything, you have a good life, and me, I have nothing with which to continue my life,’” an unnamed source familiar with the case was quoted as telling Akhbor.
The long-lasting battle between Turkey and Armenia over the acceptance or denial of the Armenian genocide has gone to Hollywood, which has wheeled out two historic epics to offer competing perspectives on the World-War-I-era massacre.
The Promise and The Ottoman Lieutenant are both panoramic love stories set in the chaotic twilight of the Ottoman Empire, but worlds apart. The first, which opened in the US on April 22, shows Turks deliberately exterminating ethnic Armenians; the second, released about a month earlier, downplays the killings as collateral war damage.
Even before The Promise opened, two days ahead of annual genocide commemorations in Armenia and by ethnic Armenian communities worldwide, thousands of Turkey-based commentators took to the Internet Movie Database (IMDB) to berate the PG-13 film. Armenian Diaspora groups in North America described the criticism as a politically motivated campaign of sabotage.
The lavishly mounted, $100-million picture, the last big project of the late Armenian-American real-estate mogul Kirk Kerkorian, is meant to help advance the international campaign to secure recognition of the massacre as genocide -- something that a string of US administrations have declined to do, lest they antagonize Turkey, a key American ally.
Areas of northern and central Kazakhstan has been hit by intense floods caused by heavy rainfall and overflowing rivers, forcing thousands to flee their homes.
The crisis began unfolding on April 11 with the outbreak of intense downfalls. Rivers bursting their banks have barred roads in several northern regions of the country, including around the capital, Astana.
A detailed account of the crisis has been provided by Sputnik news agency.
Rescue workers have evacuated around 5,000 people to safer locations. Many thousands of heads of livestock have been similarly driven to more secure ground.
The worst situation has been recorded in the town of Atbasar, in the northern Akmola region, around 260 kilometers west of Astana. Over the past weekend, levels of a river coursing past the town rose around six meters because of a combination of rainfall and snowmelt, causing it to spill over into the town. Water rushed into the first floor of numerous apartment blocks.
Those remaining in the town told stories of wailing sirens, helicopters whirring overhead and rescuers going around town in boats. More than 500 people were mobilized into the mammoth task of mitigating the fallout of the flood.
The Interior Ministry said that this year 10 billion tenge ($32 million) were allocated to local governments to help prevent and mitigate similar calamities. Questions are being raised about whether the resources are either enough or have been spent efficiently.
Security services in Uzbekistan have for the last few days been ordering the closure of internet and computer gaming cafes across the country in what appears to be an attempt to clamp down on suspected extremist religious activity.
One such internet cafe visited by EurasiaNet.org on Navoi street, a main thoroughfare in the capital, Tashkent, was found under lock and key. An employee at the establishment said that officers with the National Security Service, or SNB, arrived on April 19, disconnected the internet connection and ordered immediate closure of the building.
The same scene has been playing out across Tashkent and beyond.
The manager of one internet cafe, Rasul, said that SNB officers at his place spent a long time inspecting his servers and printers.
“My colleagues have said that in some internet points there were some people printing out leaflets belonging to the the banned religious group [Hizb ut-Tahrir] and that this was happening after the terrorist attack in Sweden, which was done by a citizen of Uzbekistan,” said Rasul, who declined to give his surname.
The deadly truck attack in Sweden earlier this month that left four people dead has refreshed concerns about Uzbekistan’s perceieved susceptibility to radical Islamist-inspired violence. Uzbekistan has claimed it passed on information about the man accused the attack to Western security agencies in 2014 and is seemingly intent on being seen to take active measures to further stamp out any manifestations of radical Islamic beliefs.
Most internet cafe workers questioned by journalists in Tashkent have declined to offer any details about their situation out of concern for the safety.
Internet cafes have been in the crosshairs before.
A U.S. warship launches Tomahawk missiles against targets in Syria on April 7. The strikes have been seen in the Caucasus as a sign of the Trump administration's resolve to stand up to Russia. (photo: U.S. Department of Defense)
The United States missile strikes on Syria have gladdened pro-Western hearts among in the Caucasus, where they have been seen as a sign that the new Trump administration is willing to act tough against Russia.
“I think what happened April 7 in Syria, the launching of the Tomahawk missiles, changed the situation very dramatically," said David Shahnazaryan, a senior analyst at the Yerevan-based Regional Studies Center and a former senior Armenian security official. "The Kremlin now must be much more careful. Maybe this will slow down, a little bit, the possibility of another war" in the Caucasus, he said.
Shahnazaryan was speaking at the South Caucasus Security Forum, held April 20-21 in Tbilisi, a gathering of Atlanticist foreign policy wonks from around the region. The uncertain foreign policy of the Trump administration was, naturally, a running theme throughout the event. And if there had been any worries that Trump might be soft on Russia, the Syrian missile strikes appear to have dispelled them.
“We saw how lost and how frightened Russians were" after the strikes, said Nodar Kharshiladze, the founder of the Georgian Strategic Analysis Centre and a former deputy minister of both defense and internal affairs. "Yes, they [the Russians] will come up with something nasty, but the initial reaction, they were very confused, they simply didn't know what to do. That shows that, when it's done properly, deterrence works very well. They recognize force when they see it, and they recognize weakness when they see it.”
Another speaker, former Georgian ambassador to Washington Batu Kutelia, even saw traces of legendary cold warrior Ronald Reagan in Trump's emerging foreign policy. (This is high praise in Tbilisi, which features the only statue to Reagan in the former Soviet Union.)
Georgia hopes that visa-free access to the EU will help secure its dream of recognition as "part of Europe."
Easter brings to Tbilisi the blessing of fewer people and less traffic, but also a certain smugness. With rural transplants heading out of town to visit family or family graves, natives of the Georgian capital can’t help expressing a snobbish satisfaction about the “villagers” having gone back to the village, if only for a few days.
Yet now that Georgians can visit the European Union visa-free, one running joke in Tbilisi has it that the EU will soon be similarly relieved to see Georgians leave for Easter.
Bandied about online is an imaginary Facebook conversation among EU leaders talking like snooty Tbilisians. “Anyone know when Easter is going to be this year?” asks European Council President Donald Tusk in Georgian. “Tell me about it. I just love it when the cities empty out,” responds German Chancellor Angela Merkel. “They used to leave for New Year’s, but they don’t anymore,” Tusk says wistfully. “Haha, didn’t I tell you this is going to happen?” gloats French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen, speaking in Russian, the language of her alleged Kremlin-linked financiers, and using the name of her famous father, Jean-Marie Le Pen. “You’ve got what you deserved! You’ve ruined Europe!”
Jokes aside, as economic hardship continues to drive Georgians abroad, a risk persists that some may try and overstay their visits to the EU in search of work. If this happens on a large scale, the EU, already struggling with a refugee crisis, reserves the right to cancel its historic decision.
Security services in Russia have detained another native of Kyrgyzstan in connection with the bombing of the St. Petersburg metro train that claimed 15 lives.
Russian news outlets have cited officials as saying Arbor Azimov is suspected of being one of the masterminds behind the April 3 attack. A representative of the Investigative Committee, Svetlana Petrenko, has said that Azimov’s suspected role in the bombing is not yet clear, however.
A video posted online on April 17 shows a squad of Russian Federal Security Service, or FSB, officers pouncing on Azimov near a railway underpass in the Odintsovo district outside Moscow and then carting him away in handcuffs. In the video, Azimov is seen to have a Makarov handgun tucked into the back of his jeans.
A few details have already emerged about Azimov’s background. He is an ethnic Uzbek born in 1990 in the southern city of Jalal-Abad, but moved to Russia some years ago and renounced his Kyrgyz citizenship. Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev’s office issued a statement on April 18 to say that Azimov’s Kyrgyz citizenship was revoked in 2013.
In 2016, Azimov reportedly flew twice to Turkey on a Russian passport — once in March, when he spent three days in Istanbul, and again in October. St. Petersburg-based news website fontanka.rusaid that on the second trip, Azimov returned to Russia via the South Korean capital, Seoul, from where he traveled to the Pacific coast city of Vladivostok.
A district court in the capital of Kyrgyzstan has convicted four opposition politicians on charges of attempting to violently seize power in a case that the defendants’ supporters say was politically motivated.
The longest term handed down on April 17 was reserved for Ernest Karybekov, who has been ordered to serve 20 years in jail.
A former governor of the Jalal-Abad region, Bektur Asanov, and former MP Kubanychbek Kadyrov received 12 years apiece, while Dastan Sarygulov, a former head of the state gold agency, were given a four-year jail term, of which three are conditional.
Zulfiya Marat, a member of the Committee for the Protection of Political Prisoners rights group, complained that rights activists were denied access to the verdict hearing.
“They selectively allowed in only relatives and, after insistent requests, the journalists. The rest it seems were not to their pleasing, and they left them outside under the rain,” she said.
Marat said there were no international observers present at the hearing.
After the verdict was read out, Sarygulov reportedly shouted that he had “no guilt in anything.” Marat told reporters that an appeal is planned.
“We will do everything the law permits. Yes, we do not believe in the justice system, but we will get through this. We will carry our burden,” she said.
Asanov and Kadyrov were detained by the authorities following the appearance online in March 2016 of wiretapped conversations appearing to document plotting by representatives of a cluster of regionally focused opposition groups. The speakers are purportedly heard to discuss ways in which to foment unrest. In one call, the speakers reveal their intent to “bring people onto the streets” and to “seize the White House,” the name of the government building that also houses the parliament.
Media outlets have in recent days reported on the death of senior Islamic State group militants from Tajikistan — including US-trained former riot police commander Gulmurod Khalimov — in what appears to amount to a devastating blow to the radical organization’s Central Asian contingent.
The Times of London cited military sources in Iraq as saying that Khalimov was killed by a missile strike on the city of Mosul, much of which has been recaptured by government troops after years under Islamic State control.
Khalimov has been described informally as the Islamic State group’s minister for war, so his death could prove meaningful. The Times cites its sources as saying he was believed to be behind the defense of Mosul and the organizer of a car bombing campaign against coalition forces.
Khalimov, 41, has been declared dead before, however, so the authorities in Tajikistan are holding their counsel so far.
Last year, the US, which has been sorely embarrassed by defection of a man it once trained to a terrorist group, placed a $3 million bounty on Khalimov.
As The Bug Pit has noted, the US State Department had approved five training courses for Khalimov — three of them in the US itself. At least one session appears to have been conducted under the auspices of US security firm Blackwater.