|Tajiks have no appetite for another war but opposition leaders warn they are ready to fight [AFP]
Mirzo Ziyoyev's battle-hardened lieutenants watched us closely from the fields of his farmstead, as we drove up in our four-wheel drive vehicle.
We had come to the Rasht valley, a geographical area that includes several smaller valleys, to meet the former military chief of staff of the Tajik Islamist opposition.
Although welcomed as guests and given tea and bread, as is the custom, we did not have an invitation.
"Regional and Russian media has speculated that groups like the [Taliban-linked] Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan may once again be trickling back into Central Asia"
Ziyoyev's men told us he was not available for comment, and we were politely given the signal to leave.
As we pulled away from the village it was becoming clear that things were not well between the powerful former warlord and the powers that be in the capital Dushanbe.
A week later, on July 11, Ziyoyev was dead.
In a press conference held by the interior ministry after the weekend, officials said Ziyoyev had died in the crossfire of a shootout between a militant Islamist group he had joined and Tajik police officers.
Ziyoyev was apparently already in police custody, but had agreed to go with officers to try to persuade other members to surrender when they came under fire.
He was also, it is alleged, about to reveal the whereabouts of a weapons cache.
Until now, the government has officially denied its operations in the Rasht valley - which have been going on since early May - were anything more serious than an annual anti-narcotics campaign.
This year's operation, known as Poppy 2009, is aimed at tackling poppy cultivation and the vast quantities of heroin and opium that are trafficked through the country from Afghanistan, and on to Europe.
More than just drugs
But, after weeks of rumour and speculation among the Tajik press and foreign diplomatic community, the government has now acknowledged for the first time that its enemies in the Rasht valley may be more than just drug smugglers.
A written statement issued by the interior ministry after the press conference includes a dramatic claim: That the group Ziyoyev had joined is led by an operative of the Taliban-linked Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), and that the group has been smuggling drugs through Rasht to finance "terrorism".
In neighbouring Garm valley, we met Mirzokhujo Ahmadov.
Like Ziyoyev, Ahmadov is another bearded Islamist commander from Tajikistan's 1992-97 civil war.
The conflict was broadly fought between government forces and the United Tajik Opposition (UTO) - a coalition of Islamists and secular reformists.
Former Islamist commanders such as Ziyoyev and Ahmadov were eventually integrated into the government as part of a peace agreement brokered by the UN.
Ziyoyev was given a cabinet role. He had been emergencies minister until his dismissal in 2006. Ahmadov had headed a regional anti-crime unit.
Emomali Rahmon, the president, has since been accused by international observers - including the International Crisis Group - of conducting a shrewd policy of sidelining, imprisoning and co-opting his opposition.
That is certainly a view shared by Ahmadov.
|Ahmadov says the government is using the drugs crackdown to sideline opposition leaders
Speaking from the relative security of his walled compound, Ahamadov believes the operation in the Rasht valley is simply the administration's latest effort to arrest or eliminate surviving members of the opposition.
"The reconciliation that was made in 1997 wasn't trustworthy and if the government had accepted it, as we accepted it, this would never have happened. It they were trustworthy, they wouldn't be chasing us now."
Ahmadov is also without a job. His anti-crime team was disbanded following an investigation into the death in 2008 of a commanding officer from a special police unit, who was killed in a gun battle with Ahmadov's supporters.
No one is really certain whether Rahmon pardoned him as he claims, or whether the state prosecutor intends to pursue the case.
But that is the murky, uncertain world of Tajik politics.
Now, Ahmadov has told Al Jazeera that he and his supporters are ready to fight again, if necessary.
"We are supporters of peace. But if we can’t stay in peace even in our own homes we will have to start fighting," he says.
The Tavildara area of the Rasht valley is isolated mountainous terrain, within easy trekking distance of the Afghan border.
For the Islamists who formed the backbone of the UTO during the civil war, Rasht was their stronghold.
After 1997, Tavildara became a haven for the IMU, which sought to support their UTO comrades in arms.
The IMU also used Rasht as a base to carry out attacks against Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan in 1999 and 2000, but was eventually forced to relocate to Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.
Since government forces began their Poppy 2009 operation in Tavildara in early May, rumours have abounded that the campaign has been a cover to intercept former fighters who might have returned there.
Euros and roubles
In trying to verify these rumours, Al Jazeera was able to access much of the Tavildara region after registering at a series of police checkpoints.
We met a respected elder whose work requires him to travel widely across the region.
The elder, who did not wish to be named, said that before the trouble started, two drivers told him they had driven "strange-looking" foreign men from Dushanbe to an isolated village nearby.
"They had suitcases filled with bread and sweets," he learnt from their conversation, "and they tried to pay with euros and Russian roubles. What can we do with roubles and euros?"
When we attempted to access the remote villages around which the operation has been centred, we encountered an armed unit of the Tajik KGB from the interior ministry.
|The government has issued footage of staged anti-narcotics operations
Our investigation on the ground ended after troops threatened our driver and the commanding officer told us, in no uncertain terms, that we could go no further.
Since Al Jazeera visited the valley, fighting has been reported even in the administrative town of Tavildara.
In press statements issued over the past week, the interior ministry has now confirmed that troops have been involved in skirmishes with heavily armed men.
Both sides, according to the ministry, have taken casualties.
Before the shootout which the government claims ended the life of Ziyoyev, the most significant incident happened earlier in the week when, on the July 8, gunmen "attempted to take over the administrative centre of Tavildara", an interior ministry press release states.
It is also claimed that in recent operations five Chechens were among a number of suspects arrested.
There appears to be a consensus among analysts and the diplomatic community that these events in Tavildara may be more than just a domestic fight between former Islamists and the government.
If foreign fighters were to have infiltrated Tajik territory, they may have required assistance.
Parviz Mullojanov, an independent regional analyst, says: "There is a lot of information coming out of different sources that there was such a group of people that crossed the border and moved further into other Central Asian countries.
"It looks like an intelligence service operation which wasn't designed in Tajikistan. There is a power which may be trying to influence the region as a whole."
Then there have been reports that the fighting could be related to an intensifying conflict in the tribal border region of Pakistan.
Intelligence sources believe IMU fighters who fought for the Taliban after the 9/11 attacks on the US, later relocated to the Pakistani tribal areas.
Regional and Russian media has speculated in recent weeks that groups such as the IMU may once again be trickling back into Central Asia, to re-ignite a dormant conflict against the governments there.
Lately there has been a string of incidents in Fergana, the Central Asian region from which the IMU originates and which straddles the borders of Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan.
These have included an alleged suicide bombing in Uzbekistan and raids on houses in Kyrgyzstan in which suspected fighters were killed.
It is possible that these events are simply a coincidence. Given a consistent lack of openness shared by all governments within the region, Central Asia is fertile territory for rumours.
But to make the connection would support the arguments of observers who have been warning of wider regional unrest for some time.
Such theories will only be tested in the coming weeks and months.
Source: Al Jazeera