TAVILDARA/PRAGUE (RFE/RL) -- A sweeping antidrug operation launched in eastern Tajikistan has fueled public fears of a crackdown on Islamic strongmen who once opposed the government in that country's civil war in the mid-1990s.
Reports of the scale and length of Opium-2009, the inclusion of special-forces troops, and especially its location have contributed to speculation that the operation may in fact be a veiled government effort to combat the activities of armed warlords in the mountainous Rasht Valley.
Qanoatshoh, a businessman from Tavildara in Rasht, tells RFE/RL's Tajik Service of "an increase of police posts along the way leading to the area" around his hometown.
"There weren't any roadblocks when I came here yesterday, [but] now there are three checkpoints put up by road police in Tavildara," Qanoatshoh says of his journey from the capital, Dushanbe. "Apparently, there were some kinds of disagreements among former fighters, so-called former mujahedin, and they have been shooting toward each other's villages."
An RFE/RL correspondent in Tavildara reports that there do not appear to have been any major movements of government troops or any other armed groups in the area.
The Rasht Valley is not generally known for drug production or as a major trafficking route but was the stronghold of the armed Islamic opposition in the civil war.
The situation has thus raised alarm bells among Tajiks in the area, given relatively fresh memories of bloodshed that make them wary of reopening wounds from that conflict and sensitive to any hint of politically motivated violence.
Tajikistan's Interior Ministry, whose special forces troops are taking part in the six-month operation, has flatly denied that there is anything more to the operation than eradicating poppy cultivation and drug trafficking.
Spokesman Mahmadullo Asadulloev says the Interior Ministry is responding to "urgent reports" that favorable weather conditions this year had led to a rise in poppy cultivation, which in turn threatened to increase drug trafficking.
"According to urgent reports about the cultivation of drugs in Rasht region, a special working group that consists of employees of the antidrug agency, crime-investigation department, and law enforcement agencies has been sent to Rasht region," says Asadulloev.
Mirzokhuja Ahmadov, a former Islamic opposition commander who served as the head of Rasht's organized-crime-fighting department until it was disbanded in November, questions the authorities' choice of location for an antidrug operation.
"Our region, including Tavildara, is quiet," says Ahmadov. "It's being said that armed troops were dispatched here to search for narcotics or against some people. But we don't cultivate narcotics or opium here. There is no need to search for drugs here."
The location is one of many questions that have been raised in connection to the operation.
Officials in Tajikistan's Defense Ministry have said the stepped-up activities are entirely related to the deployment and military training of new conscripts, dismissing speculation that the area was being targeted because of its history as an opposition stronghold.
However, the arrest this week of a man once allegedly associated with Mullo Abdullo, a former field commander of the opposition in the Tajik civil war that followed independence, helped fuel rumors that Abdullo and a group of his armed supporters had returned to eastern Tajikistan.
Tajik media reported the arrest of Muzaffar Nuriddinov in Dushanbe, and was described as a member of an illegal armed group in the 1990s. Local media, however, linked Nuriddinov to Mullo Abdullo.
Mullo Abdullo, also known as Abdullo Rahimov, did not recognize the 1997 Peace Accord signed by Tajik government and opposition representatives that ended the five-year civil war. Instead, he reportedly fled to Afghanistan and joined up with Taliban militants. In the course of the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan that began in 2001, Mullo Abdullo was reportedly arrested in southern Kandahar Province.
While the majority of Islamic opposition fighters returned to civilian life or integrated with government troops after the 1997 peace accord, Abdullo was among those who refused to disarm. Isolated armed skirmishes between former fighters and government troops continued to take place in Rasht Valley until 2001.
While Abdullo's militant group was effectively disbanded by government troops with the help of former opposition fighters, his was believed to be the last illegal armed group in eastern Tajikistan.
RFE/RL Tajik Service correspondents Mirzo Salimov and Rahmatkarim Davlatov contributed to this report