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RESPONSE TO TERROR | MOSCOW MOBILIZES

Afghans Wary as Russian Officials Return to Kabul

Housing: A small team arrives in effort to exert influence, raising fears of eviction among refugees occupying ex-embassy.

November 20, 2001|PAUL WATSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

KABUL, Afghanistan — Years after the former Soviet Union failed in its occupation of Afghanistan and then fell apart, Afghans got revenge, of sorts. They occupied a small, ruined piece of Russia.

As many as 20,000 Afghans, mostly farmers from the plains north of Kabul, have moved into the sprawling and empty Russian Embassy compound, which under international law is still rightfully sovereign Russian territory.

Most came 2 1/2 years ago, when the Taliban purged surrounding villages to open up a free-fire zone in the country's civil war. "I had 4,000 grapevines and two houses that are upside-down now," said Hul Mohammed, 45. "And now we have nothing."

The Taliban destroyed their livelihoods, but the refugees blame their woes, and the nation's, on outside invaders. Many said they wouldn't budge from the compound until Russia repaired their houses.

Now, an advance party of Russian officials is back in Kabul trying to reassert Moscow's influence over the country it invaded almost 23 years ago, starting a generation of war that still rages.

The refugees are afraid the Russians' return will leave them homeless again, but for now the team of 17 officials from Moscow is busy with bigger problems. Working out of a Kabul guest house, they appear to have been dispatched to prop up a Northern Alliance government.

Over the weekend, as Western diplomats and the United Nations pressed the alliance to agree to begin power-sharing negotiations, Russian Defense Minister Sergei B. Ivanov in Moscow repeated his government's position that the alliance is already the legitimate government of Afghanistan.

Ivanov also said the alliance must share power with "all ethnic groups and, in the first instance, Pushtun," according to the Itar-Tass news agency. The defeated Taliban are largely Pushtun.

But Ivanov's insistence that Moscow would continue sending arms to the Northern Alliance raised fears among U.N. diplomats here that efforts to install a completely new, broad-based administration would be undermined.

United Nations negotiator Francesc Vendrell said in an interview here Sunday that Ivanov's remarks were open to interpretation. But privately, one of his senior officials with long experience in the vagaries of Afghan politics said the Russians were complicating Vendrell's already difficult job.

Russian President Vladimir V. Putin has promised to support the U.S.-led war against terrorism. But Moscow is also eager to ensure that it has a say in who rules Afghanistan, which under the Pakistani-backed Taliban regime became a rear base for rebels fighting for independence in the Russian republic of Chechnya.

Russia has regional links with Tajiks and Uzbeks who dominate the Northern Alliance, and Iran has Shiite religious ties to the ethnic Hazaras, junior partners in the alliance. India also supports the alliance as a counterbalance to Pakistani influence over Afghanistan.

Vendrell said Sunday that he expects the Northern Alliance to wipe the slate clean and surrender power to a multiethnic "provisional council," rather than simply add Pushtun allies to legitimize its rule.

But various governments involved in the effort to get the power-sharing talks started, including the U.S., have stressed that each day that passes without a deal only makes the talks more difficult.

Vendrell did not get a breakthrough in his third day of meetings Monday with Northern Alliance leaders, including its overall military commander, Gen. Mohammed Qassim Fahim. He was also due to meet with members of the Russian delegation, which includes officials from the foreign, defense and other ministries.

In 1989, after a decade-long effort to occupy Afghanistan, the Russians gave up trying to rule from behind the fortress walls of the huge embassy complex on Dehmazang Street in Kabul.

Much to many people's surprise, the Communist government of President Najibullah that Moscow had worked so hard to prop up lasted three years after the Soviet forces' retreat.

But when the moujahedeen holy warriors who had driven out the Soviets finally seized the capital in 1992, the Russians were forced to abandon their embassy compound, which was directly in the line of fire in a brutal civil war.

About 3,200 Afghan families, with at least five people in each, have made the Russian Embassy their home, according to the relief agency CARE, which trucks in fresh water for them each day and provides other aid.

A U.N. World Food Program sign that marks a distribution spot for subsidized bread at the embassy's main gate refers to it as the "X-Russian Compound." It went up in the days of Taliban rule, when no one could imagine the Russians ever returning to Kabul.

Heavy machine guns blasted holes through the thick bulletproof glass that once protected Russian security guards posted at the embassy's various gates. Some of the holes are so big that children crawl through them to get in and out of what has become their hometown.

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