In eastern Tajikistan, in the autonomous region of Nagorno-Badakhshan, there are signs of escalation.

Dozens of people are believed to have been killed in protests against lawlessness, despotism and social problems in recent days.

The regime of sole ruler Emomali Rahmon describes the action in the region in the high Pamir mountains as an "anti-terrorist operation" and also pours oil on the fire with targeted action against spokesmen.

Frederick Smith

Political correspondent for Russia and the CIS in Moscow.

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One of the most influential leaders of the "Pamirians", Mamadbokir Mamadbokirov, was killed on Sunday.

Born in 1963, the former border troops colonel was a militia commander in the civil war that claimed the lives of tens of thousands in the 1990s and continued to be held in high esteem in Nagorno-Badakhshan, much to Rahmon's chagrin.

For this, Mamadbokirov was charged with criminal charges and also held responsible for the recent protests.

A questionable “anti-terrorist operation”

According to the Interior Ministry, Mamadbokirov was killed on Sunday evening in Khorog, the region's administrative center, "as a result of internal clashes between criminal groups."

However, the Moscow-based Central Asia portal “Fergana” wrote that a regime sniper was blamed for the killing on social media.

The journalist and activist Ulfatchonim Mamajoyeva, who is also blamed by the regime for the protests, wrote that Mamadbokirov was caught and shot while walking by four secret service employees who drove up in an SUV.

A comrade-in-arms was wounded and a passerby was killed.

The causes of the protests go deep.

Nagorno-Badakhshan makes up 45 percent of Tajik territory but only 3 percent of the country's population of nine and a half million people.

Unemployment is high, the economic participation of the "Pamirer" low.

There are also linguistic and religious differences: Most of the approximately 230,000 inhabitants of the region are Ismailis, adherents of a Shiite Islam community, while most of the Tajiks are Sunnis.

The residents of the area feel badly treated and are themselves suspected of being separatists by the regime.

There were repeated riots.

The latest wave of protests was sparked by the killing of a young man by security forces at the end of November;

Thousands took to the streets of Khorog, and two more civilians were killed in clashes with police and military.

The Internet was switched off, only switched on again in March - and now it's switched off again.

The situation has been getting worse since mid-May.

Khorog residents made a number of demands on the authorities, including an investigation into the killings at the end of November and the release of detained activists.

The regime rejected this and threatened to punish protests as terrorism.

On Monday last week, security forces used tear gas and rubber bullets against demonstrators in Khorog, and social networks said they also used edged weapons.

A young man died.

According to official information, around 200 people then blocked the road from the capital Dushanbe to Khorog.

An "anti-terrorist operation" began, which officially claimed the lives of a security guard and eight "members of terrorist groups".

However, social media said dozens of civilians had been killed and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported that the bodies of 21 victims of the crackdown had been returned to their families.

Judgments against spokesmen for the “Pamirers” also contribute to the aggravation of the situation: a man described as “the informal leader of the Pamir youth in Moscow” and a mixed martial artist have been transferred from Russia to Dushanbe and sentenced to long prison terms there been.

The EU and the embassies of Western countries, including Germany, have expressed concern about the situation.

The Ismaili Imam (resident in France), Karim Aga Khan IV, called on his followers to resolve the conflict through dialogue.

The UN Special Rapporteur on Minority Issues, Fernand de Varennes, criticized the regime's reaction: It was trying to end the protests with "excessive and illegal use of force" and the situation threatened to get out of control.