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Tajikistan: Tensions Rising Over Food Prices In Remote East

More than 500 people gathered for protests in Khorog (RFE/RL) Tensions between Tajikistan's government and local leaders in the remote eastern Badakhshan region appear to be reaching a critical stage.

The inhabitants of the sparsely populated area have for weeks complained of rising food prices and what they call increasing interference from the central government.

More than 500 people gathered on June 18 in front of the government building in Khorog, the capital of the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region in eastern Tajikistan's high mountains. They were protesting news that the government had sent additional troops to the region with a plan to arrest local leaders.

"I heard that [the government] brought troops here," one female demonstrator told RFE/RL's Tajik Service. "I am a mother of two sons, and I do not want there to be bloodshed again and mothers to be in mourning again. We gathered here not just to prevent war, but also to learn why they brought these forces here and what the purpose of these troops is. Let [the authorities] explain why they are here. If they tell us we will leave peacefully. We do not want anything else."

Excluded From Politics

Badakhshan makes up nearly half of Tajikistan, with much of the land several thousand meters above sea level. Many of its 500,000 people are Ismaili Muslims -- Shi'ite followers of the Aga Khan. In a country of mainly Sunni Muslims, they have been largely excluded from Tajik politics. The Badakhshanis often found themselves the targets of various groups during Tajikistan's 1992-97 civil war, which claimed some 100,000 lives.

Since the war’s end, the people of the region have seemed to prefer living secluded lives. But they have recently complained about increasing prices of basic goods, a lack of electricity, and what they see as growing meddling by the central government.

Local leaders not affiliated with the government have been leading the criticism. The opposition Social Democratic Party has also seized on the discontent in a bid to garner greater popular support, not only regionally but throughout Tajikistan, where people face problems similar, though not as severe, as those in Badakhshan.

The head of the party's local branch, Alim Sherzamonov, was among those who broke the news that hundreds of soldiers had been transferred to Khorog as a precautionary move ahead of a planned to visit to the area next month by President Emomali Rahmon.

Badakhshan residents say they are fearful the government is preparing a crackdown similar to one last month in the southwestern Kulob area, which is also experiencing rising costs for basic goods. In May, the Tajik government sent troops into Kulob to capture a local figure the authorities claimed was a major drug trafficker. The troops captured the man, but several local residents died during the operation.

'No One Is Telling Us Anything'

People in Badakhshan are now wondering if the same thing is about to happen there. Adding to their fears are reports that Badakhshan's top government official, Qosim Qodir, has evacuated his family to the capital.

"My reason for being here is to find out why the head of the oblast sent his family to Dushanbe," Sabzali Mamadrizoev, one of the demonstrators, told RFE/RL's Tajik Service. "If everything here is so peaceful, why did he send his family there? He has not said anything, he has not told the people what is going on or held any meetings about it. Our goal is to learn why no one is telling us anything."

The demonstrators dispersed on June 18 after local officials promised that the additional troops sent to the region would be withdrawn. The demonstrators have vowed to return in two days if that promise is not kept.

Despite being located in the remote southeastern corner of Central Asia, Tajikistan is important to both Russia and the United States. The country hosts a Russian motorized rifle division and a modest NATO contingent engaged in support operations for U.S.-led efforts in Afghanistan.

Salimjon Aioubov of RFE/RL's Tajik Service contributed to this report

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