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Turkmen Opposition Leader Offers Different Version Of Ashgabat Shoot-Out

  • Bruce Pannier

The drinking-water plant where the shoot-out took place

The drinking-water plant where the shoot-out took place

On the night of September 12-13, there were numerous witness reports from the Turkmen capital of gunfire, and talk of many dead in a battle between police and an armed group.

The Turkmen government said later that there was a gun battle between security services and an armed group that has been described as drug traffickers and (in the first hours after the incident) as Islamic militants.

Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov eventually described the group as drug traffickers, but also called on law enforcement agencies to improve their counterterrorism training, suggesting it may not have strictly been drug-related.

Nurberdi Nurmammedov is a founder of the unregistered opposition party Agzybirlik (Unity) and one of the few Turkmen opposition figures living in the country. He lives in the area where the shoot-out took place, Khitrovka, a poor neighborhood on the edge of Ashgabat known both for drug problems and religious fervor, and he asked fellow residents what they saw or heard during this unprecedented incident of violence.

Nurmammedov's account of the fighting, based on conversations with Khitrovka residents, matches the account given by the Turkmen government and those who could hear the battle, including staff at the U.S. Embassy in Ashgabat.

"According to witnesses, the shoot-out started at 1 p.m. on September 12. At midnight the shooting intensified and witnesses said heavy weapons were brought in to the area and the gunfire became even more intense," Nurmammedov says. "The gunfire continued throughout the morning but not as heavily as it had been and lasted until 1 or 2 p.m. So the fighting lasted for 24 hours."

The Role Of 'Ajdar'

But Nurmammedov's version of why the fighting started differs greatly from the government's story. He says that at the center of the conflict was a man named Khudaiberdy Amandurdyyev, known as "Ajdar."

"According to witnesses, the incident started in early September, when Ramadan began. Ajdar organized a traditional feast and the police came and took away the mullah" to break up the feast, he says. "After that, events progressed quickly. Ajdar [then] hid from the police because they were searching for him."

Amandurdyyev was first arrested in July 1995 after taking part in an antigovernment demonstration. The protest is well remembered, especially since the government at the time tried unconvincingly to brand the protesters as "alcoholics and drug addicts." Nurmammedov says Amandurdyyev was released after a few years in prison and was then kept under tight surveillance by the security services.

Not long after the Ramadan feast was broken up and Ajdar went into hiding, a series of explosions occurred in and around Ashgabat.

"There were some explosions at Goek-Tepe, at gas stations, and at the Turkish shopping center Yimpash in Ashgabat," Nurmammedov says. "The authorities blamed Ajdar, but people who know him say Ajdar was not behind these explosions."

Following the explosions, wanted posters of Ajdar were posted around the Turkmen capital.

Nurmammedov says that on the day the gun battle started, September 12, witnesses say that "the police came to Ajdar's house and harassed his family." Ajdar called home and asked his mother to put the chief of police, who was there, on the phone. Ajdar then "told him where they were -- at the water-bottling plant and an adjacent building that was under construction. Ajdar said he was inside the latter building and said, 'if you have business with Ajdar come here and do not bother my family.'"

The police chief reportedly did go to the water-bottling plant and brought someone with him.

"When the police came to the [plant] the chief of police brought Ajdar's youngest son. When he started negotiations with Ajdar he used his son as a human shield, and he told Ajdar to come out and that they had his youngest son," Nurmammedov says. "During the negotiations, one of the guys in the building, a sniper, shot the police chief in the head and people say that during the ensuing gun battle Ajdar's son was also killed."

Signs Of Official Corroboration

The death of a police official is corroborated by something that President Berdymukhammedov said at a special cabinet session after the fighting.

At the meeting, Berdymukhammedov criticized the security forces for the way they handled the incident. He referred to "mistakes" made during the operation that at times, he said, bordered on incompetence. Berdymukhammedov also referred to casualties during the battle, including deaths among the police, though he did not give any concrete figures.

Witnesses told Nurmammedov that Ajdar was also killed in the gun battle, something also possibly confirmed by the authorities, who said some of the security forces and those they were attempting to apprehend were killed during the fighting.

A video that has been widely circulated in Ashgabat shows Ajdar's body lying naked on a table, apparently shortly after an autopsy had been performed.

Nurmammedov's account seems at least as plausible as any other of the deadly events of September 12-13. But like other versions of the incident, it does not explain where the armed group got their weapons or why they were such a threat that armored vehicles -- including, by some accounts, tanks -- were needed to deal with them.

And it does not shed light on what is perhaps the biggest question -- why is it so difficult for the Turkmen authorities to give a clear and full account of the incident?

RFE/RL Turkmen Service Director Oguljamal Yazliyeva contributed to this report