Former US enemy becomes an ally as Putin pledges qualified support

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The Independent Online

America's prospects of tightening the strategic noose around Osama bin Laden and the Taliban regime received a boost from Russia yesterday, when President Vladimir Putin promised to channel arms to the Taliban's opposition and share intelligence data with Washington officials.

Mr Putin's assurances came as the US sent aircraft to Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, former Soviet republics in central Asia where Russia still has a major presence. The republics have emerged as vital allies and military staging posts for the US. Describing the 11 September attacks as "barbaric acts," Mr Putin said Russia was ready to make its contribution to the common cause.

The most significant announcement by Mr Putin was that Moscow would funnel arms supplies and military equipment to the Northern Alliance, which has claimed to be making fresh inroads against the Taliban.

The borders of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan are close to the regions where the alliance is active, and leaders of the opposition group met at the weekend in the Tajik capital, Dushanbe, with Russia's chief of staff, General Anatoly Kvashnin. General Kvashnin then reported back to Mr Putin before the President's broadcast last night. In his televised address, Mr Putin said Moscow would open its airspace for aircraft carrying "humanitarian supplies" to regions where "anti-terrorist operations" were under way. Russia, with deep experience of Afghanistan after its bloody and unsuccessful 10-year campaign to subjugate the country in the 1980s, will also make available its own intelligence about Mr bin Laden's movements and the whereabouts of his followers and guerrilla trading camps.

Although Moscow has made clear from the outset that it would not provide troops of its own for any international coalition against Mr bin Laden and the Taliban, Mr Putin indicated Russia was ready to take part in what he called "international search and rescue operations" inside Afghanistan.

Despite denials from the governments of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan – both of which are wary about Islamic opposition movements in their own countries – American warplanes and C-130 supply planes have been reported to be landing there, presumably with Russia's blessing.

In the complicated diplomatic preparations being co-ordinated by the Secretary of State, Colin Powell, Moscow is playing a pivotal part.

The Kremlin is more than happy that America is planning a blitz against the Taliban regime but it must balance two conflicting considerations: its shared interest with Washington in seeing the downfall of the Taliban and Mr bin Laden – both have backed the Chechen rebellion that Moscow has been fighting to suppress for the past seven years – and the fear of seeing the US gain a strong and perhaps lasting foothold in its own back yard.

Since the crisis began, Mr Bush has spoken several times with Mr Putin, including a long conversation from Camp David on Saturday. There has been some speculation that Mr Bush is offering to go slow on his cherished national missile defence scheme, which Moscow strongly dislikes. Washington has also hinted it may tone down its criticism of Russia's human rights record in Chechnya.

Mr Putin has also talked directly and frequently with the leaders of all five former Soviet Central Asian republics. Uzbekistan and Tajikistan are in the front line, but flanking them to the west, with an even longer border is Turkmenistan, which has the advantage that it has no domestic fundamentalist opposition threat to worry about.

All three regimes have close military links with Moscow that, even after the collapse of the Soviet Union, has a quasi-colonial dominance in the region.