Tajikistan says government opponent detained in restive east

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A long-time rival of Tajikistan’s authoritarian regime was arrested in the ex-Soviet country’s troubled east, authorities said Saturday, as they push to consolidate control over the remote region bordering China and Afghanistan.

Former civil war commander Tolib Ayombekov was among three people the state information agency Khovar cited as arrested as part of a special operation in the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region, where at least 14 people have died and scores have been jailed in recent weeks.

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The three men were described as “leaders of an organized criminal group” in the information agency’s release citing a government body charged with ensuring security in the region.

Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region, commonly known by its Soviet-era acronym GBAO, has been a periodic flashpoint since the end of a five-year civil war in Tajikistan in the 1990s.

Ayombekov fought against Tajikistan forces during that conflict but was integrated into the government along with other so-called “warlords” as part of a peace deal that Russia helped broker.

The state information agency said in its release that Ayombekov and the two other men detained had “participated in” crimes including murder and drugs trafficking, without offering details.

In May the government launched its largest military operation in GBAO in a decade amid protests and tensions between the local population and centrally appointed bureaucrats.

The official death toll from the operation has been dismissed as an underestimate by observers and a government-imposed communications blackout in the region has further clouded the picture.

Clashes between local forces loyal to Ayombekov and government troops in 2012 left dozens dead in the biggest flare-up since the civil war ended there.

The spark for the conflict was the government’s accusation that Ayombekov murdered an intelligence official.

Ayombekov was never tried for the crime, which he denied committing, and had appeared to reach an uneasy truce with the government.

Police announced last month that another government opponent in the region, Mamadbokir Mamadbokirov, was killed “as a result of internal clashes of criminal groups,” sparking fears of further escalation.

A popular Telegram channel covering GBAO disputed that version of events and said Mamadbokirov had been killed by security forces.

Ethnically and religiously distinct from the rest of Tajikistan, GBAO accounts for around half of the majority-Muslim Central Asian country’s territory but just over two percent of its population of 9.5 million people.

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