By Roman Kozhevnikov
DUSHANBE (Reuters) - Tajikistan's government agreed on Thursday to withdraw troops from a mountain region near the Afghan border, ending a stand-off with 2,000 demonstrators who occupied the centre of a town where dozens were killed in a military assault last month.
Troops will begin leaving Khorog on August 24 after a deal between government officials and a 20-strong group of locals in an autonomous region of the impoverished Central Asian state, a high-ranking security source close to the talks told Reuters.
The deal promises the withdrawal of troops from the Gorno-Badakhshan region within 20 days. In return, the local head of government, Kodiri Kosim, will keep his post, the source said.
Several demonstrators told Reuters by telephone from Khorog that the crowd had dispersed, packing up tents that were pitched on the central square earlier in the day.
Government forces in Tajikistan, the poorest of 15 former Soviet republics, stormed Khorog on July 24 in pursuit of a former warlord accused of murdering the local head of the State Committee on National Security, successor to the Soviet-era KGB.
Seventeen soldiers, 30 rebels and at least one civilian were killed in the fighting, near the Afghan border about 520 km (325 miles) southeast of the capital Dushanbe.
Some analysts said the military operation, the largest of its kind in almost two years, was a show of force by President Imomali Rakhmon, whose control over parts of the country remains tenuous 15 years after the end of a civil war.
The wanted warlord, Tolib Ayombekov, denied involvement in the murder and avoided capture, but gave himself up voluntarily on August 12. Though this was a condition for troops to withdraw, residents said soldiers remained stationed on the edge of town.
The trigger for the latest protest in Khorog was the unsolved killing of another former warlord who fought the government in the 1992-97 civil war and enjoyed support among the population of Gorno-Badakhshan.
Imomnazar Imomnazarov was killed early on Wednesday when unknown assailants threw a grenade into his home and opened fire. The prosecutor-general's office promised to investigate the murder, but in the same statement also accused Imomnazarov of having participated in organized crime, including the smuggling of drugs and precious stones.
Separated from Afghanistan by the Pyanj river, Gorno-Badakhshan is an autonomous region where the authority of central government is fragile. Most of the regional population sided with the opposition during the 1990s civil war.
Situated high in the Pamir mountains, the region covers about half of Tajikistan but its 250,000 people account for less than 4 percent of the country's 7.5 million population. More than 30,000 people live in Khorog alone.
Several local residents, who declined to give their full names, said by telephone that many former warlords in the region earned money through crime. However, many had won the respect of local people by dividing the spoils.
"People in Gorno-Badakhshan are very poor. The commanders have always given some of their riches to their neighbors, helping them to organize weddings, funerals and studies," said one Khorog resident, who gave her first name as Midzhgona.
"People close their eyes to where the money has come from."
Saidnazar, a 21-year-old student who was among the demonstrators and was told about the deal, said the protest had achieved its aim. "We showed the authorities that they need to reckon with us. The authorities showed that they want peace," he said. "We're satisfied and we're going home."
(Writing by Robin Paxton; Editing by Mark Heinrich)