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Russia Backed in Tajik Conflict by 3 Asian Nations

August 08, 1993|RICHARD BOUDREAUX | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MOSCOW — President Boris N. Yeltsin won pledges of military and diplomatic support from three Central Asian nations Saturday in an effort to defuse Russia's latest foreign crisis--stepped-up Islamic guerrilla raids from Afghanistan into Tajikistan.

In the Tajik civil war, the bloodiest in any former Soviet republic, Russia backs the hard-line regime of ex-Communist apparatchiks and has sent 3,500 soldiers to help fight off guerrillas. Moscow plunged deeper into the conflict after 25 Russian border guards died in a rebel raid July 13.

Under pressure from hawks at home, the Kremlin responded by ordering cross-border artillery strikes on rebel camps. That provoked an outcry not only from the Afghan side--where at least 300 people have been reported killed by the shelling--but from Yeltsin's democratic supporters here, who warn that Russia is sliding into a quagmire like the failed, 10-year Soviet war in Afghanistan.

Trying to spread the burden of the conflict, Yeltsin summoned the leaders of Tajikistan and other Central Asian countries to Moscow for a one-day summit. The presidents of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan agreed to reinforce the rugged Tajik-Afghan border with their own troops and to take "retaliatory measures" against further attacks.

But their statement also urged the Tajik government to make a political settlement its "main priority," through talks with opposition leaders and Afghanistan.

The Afghan government denies backing Tajik guerrillas, but its foreign minister, Hidayat Amin Arsalla, told Reuters news agency on Saturday that if the shelling of Afghan territory continues, "we will have to retaliate."

Addressing the summit in the Grand Kremlin Palace, Yeltsin called on the Tajik leadership "to establish direct dialogue with the opposition, with all its elements" with the aim of bringing alienated ethnic and clan interests into the government. "Military measures are not our choice," he added.

Uzbek President Islam Karimov told reporters later that he and the other presidents had bluntly criticized the Tajik leader, Imomali Rakhmonov, for refusing to meet with opposition leaders.

"We explicitly declared that we have no intention of resolving this problem militarily," Karimov said.

Tajik opposition leaders--who include liberal democrats, intellectuals, Islamic activists and regional clansmen excluded from the government--welcomed the summit statement and said they would demand that Rakhmonov hand over power to "neutral forces" trusted by both sides.

The war in Tajikistan, which has raged for more than a year and claimed at least 20,000 lives, is worrisome to the rest of Central Asia as well as to Russia. Most of the Central Asian leaders are, like Rakhmonov, former Communist functionaries who run poor nations with porous borders and fear the spread of Islamic militancy represented by part of the Tajik opposition.

But they also fear that, even if Rakhmonov clings to power, prolonged warfare along the Tajik-Afghan border will expose the entire region to increased trafficking in arms and drugs from Afghanistan.

As the inheritor of the Soviet army, Russia has assumed the role of protecting that border as its own--along with the safety of thousands of ethnic Russians in Central Asia.

Uzbekistan had already sent two battalions to back the Russian forces in Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan had sent one. Saturday's agreement apparently pledges them to increase those forces while obliging Kazakhstan to join them.

Turkmenistan, rich in gas and intent on economic and political independence from Moscow, sent a low-level observer to the summit but declined to sign the agreement, citing what its foreign minister called a "policy of positive nonintervention."

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