Empty promises of peace along Tajik border: Russia, fearing another Afghan war, is vainly trying to find a solution to a new conflict in Central Asia, writes Hugh Pope

TAJIKISTAN and Afghanistan yesterday pledged to end the fighting along their mountain border, which had alarmed Moscow into thinking that it might be facing a re-run of the Afghan war in Central Asia. The two foreign ministers issued a joint communique at the end of four days of talks in the Tajik capital, Dushanbe. It said both would block cross-border attacks into each other's territory.

The promises sound empty, however, since Kabul has little influence over Islamic fundamentalists and Tajik rebels in northern Afghanistan. But there seems to be little cause for immediate alarm that Islamic radicalism is about to sweep into Central Asia through the Tajik Achilles' heel.

Until July, not much had been happening on the long, mountainous border apart from small local clashes. Regional attention was focused on the conflict by noisy Russian shock at a rebel raid over the Afghan border on a Russian-manned border post, which killed 25 Russian soldiers and perhaps 100 Tajik civilians. According to the Afghan government, Russian artillery units then bombarded Afghan villages across the border and sent in warplanes to strafe, killing or wounding 400 people and forcing out 6,000 more. Russia denied this, but some officials, remembering the 15,000 Soviet dead from the war in Afghanistan, asserted a defensive right to do so.

'Everyone must realise that this border is effectively Russia's, not Tajikistan's border,' said President Boris Yeltsin. The chief of staff at his Security Ministry added: 'Preventative measures . . . include dealing response strikes at identified concentrations of bandit formations, including in Afghan territory. If they invade us, then probably we have the moral right to invade their territory.'

Not all Russians are so alarmist. The Deputy Foreign Minister, Anatoly Adamishin, told the Moscow News this weekend that 'there is a serious danger of becoming embroiled in a protracted war. And that must be avoided at all costs. But all parallels with Afghanistan end here.'

The Tajik rebels draw their force from one section of 50,000 refugees in northern Afghanistan. Their international isolation is such that even pro- Islamic Pakistan expelled the leader of one group this month. By contrast, at the height of the Afghan conflict, 3 million refugees supplied men to mujahedin groups backed by the United States, Iran, Pakistan and others.

Russia does, however, find itself in an awkward position in Tajikistan, where its military, at least, is co-operating with a neo-Communist regime based on two of Tajikistan's four main regions. The Tajik government of Imamali Rakhmanov has been in power since December, when, with covert Uzbek and perhaps Russian support, it crushed a coup by an Islamic-democratic alliance. As was pointed out by the most open-minded regional leader, Asker Akaev of Kyrgyzstan, the main obstacle to peace in Tajikistan is not Islamic fundamentalism, but one of these regional groups.

Few expect the Tajik government to pay any heed to injunctions from Mr Yeltsin to hold inter-Tajik peace talks. Mr Rakhmanov's attitude to opposition was illustrated in a report by Amnesty International of 'appalling human rights violations' committed in the name of the Tajik government.

Mr Yeltsin summoned all the leaders of Central Asia to Moscow to discuss the Tajik problem on 7 August. He won only vague promises of troops to help out the Russian border force in Tajikistan. Such promises have not led far in the past. The degree of insincerity reached a high point when the Uzbek President called for inter-Tajik dialogue. The Uzbek leader is the chief backer of the new Tajik government and a man who has used an iron fist to crush all opposition in his state.

(Map omitted)

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