Nine people, including a police officer, were killed in an “anti-terrorist operation” in the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast (GBAO) region, Tajikistan’s Interior Ministry said on Wednesday, a claim refuted by local activists.
A ministry statement said 19 people, including eight soldiers, were injured.
The people targeted in the operation were peaceful protesters, local activists said.
An increasingly volatile security situation has developed over the past six months in the GBAO, which makes up almost half of Tajikistan but is home to less than 3 per cent of its population.
Protests are becoming more frequent in the mountainous province, which borders Afghanistan and China, over the government's assertion of authority in the self-governing region.
Authorities accuse the protesters of harbouring separatist ambitions but locals and analysts say the demonstrations are aimed largely at securing the limited level of autonomy the GBAO was promised during its formation after the end of Tajikistan’s civil war in 1997.
A statement issued on Wednesday jointly by the EU, French, German, British and American embassies in Tajikistan called “on all parties to spare no effort to de-escalate, exercise restraint and refrain from excessive use of force and incitement to violence”.
It urged authorities “to ensure that law enforcement agencies act in strict compliance with the rule of law and uphold the standards of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms”.
The situation in the region has been especially tense since November, when security forces shot dead Gulbuddin Ziyobekov, 29, a man who authorities accused of kidnapping a local prosecutor.
Police say Ziyobekov was killed after resisting arrest but witnesses claim he was executed in cold blood.
Ziyobekov’s death sparked rallies across the province demanding a probe into the incident.
Authorities have also cut internet access in GBAO in the months since the protest rallies began, either throttling connection speeds or occasionally shutting down services completely.
They have also imprisoned a number of activists and public figures from the GBAO.
In January, Amriddin Alovatshoev, a Tajik migrant community leader from the province, was extradited to Dushanbe, the Tajik capital, from Russia on charges of hostage-taking.
Last month he was sentenced to 18 years in prison.
The same month, Chorshanbe Chorshanbiev, a Mixed Martial Arts fighter from the GBAO, was put on trial for allegedly calling to overthrow the government in social media posts.
Both men’s families say they were pursued because of their participation in GBAO-related protests in Russia.
The operation on Wednesday was carried out after hundreds of protesters blocked traffic on a motorway from Rushon district to the provincial capital of Khorog.
The central government in Dushanbe labelled the protesters an “organised criminal group” supported by unnamed foreign terrorists. But thus far it has released no evidence to substantiate the claim.
The protest movement appears to be only very loosely organised, posing a challenge for authorities.
Protesters have, in recent days, demanded the resignation of the provincial governor Alisher Mirzonabot, who was appointed by Dushanbe after Ziyobekov’s death, and Khorog mayor Rizo Nazarzoda.
They have also demanded the release of activists held since November.
The GBAO was given autonomous status as part of a peace deal that ended Tajikistan’s civil war in 1997, in recognition of its distinct cultural and religious identity.
The majority of its inhabitants are ethnic Pamiris, who speak their own language, and follow Ismailism, an offshoot of Shiite Islam that follows the Portugal-based Aga Khan as its spiritual leader.
Outside the GBAO, the vast majority of Tajiks are Sunni Muslims.
“The government has rolled back the regional autonomy ever since the ink dried on the peace deal,” Peter Leonard, the Central Asia editor for Eurasianet, told The National. “One by one they’ve picked off all the people who were supposed to be given a role in governing the country. The Pamiris are the last thorn in their side.”
In the 25 years since the peace deal, however, locals say the GBAO has been neglected economically by the central government and treated as a backwater.
There are no commercial airports operating in the province; it is only accessible by an 18-hour journey from Dushanbe on poorly maintained roads.
The central government has also accused the Pamiri community leaders of petty criminality, such as involvement in the smuggling of tobacco, precious gems and drugs from Afghanistan.
Rumours of local leaders’ involvement in illicit smuggling are “widely whispered”, but “in Tajikistan, the way the government is run, there is no space for legitimate local leaders to operate”, Mr Leonard said.