Tajiks soften line on rivals

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DUSHANBE (Reuter) - Tajikistan's Foreign Minister yesterday said the government was ready to talk to some members of the opposition to stop political and religious conflict spreading through Central Asia.

Rashid Olimov made clear his antipathy towards the most radical pro- Islamic rebel leaders in the volatile former Soviet republic but he said a dialogue with other opposition representatives had already started.

'We are conducting that dialogue. If we weren't conducting that dialogue, 35,000 refugees would not have returned (from Afghanistan),' he told Western correspondents.

'We are holding that dialogue with individual representatives or leaders of groups of refugees. They also represent, in a sense, the opposition.'

Tajikistan's government, fighting against Islamic rebels based in Afghanistan, came under strong pressure at the weekend from President Boris Yeltsin of Russia to open talks with an opposition it once described as a bunch of murderers.

Mr Olimov said other opposition figures, apart from the handful of best-known radical leaders, were capable of holding talks.

'You know the names of five (leading) people, but you don't know all those others who are also capable of representing the people there,' he said.

Thousands of people were killed in a short civil war which restored ex- Communists to power and sent their radical Muslim enemies fleeing into Afghanistan with tens of thousands of refugees.

The rebels, in alliance with Afghan mujahedin fighters, have now stepped up cross-border hostilities. In one attack last month they killed 25 of the Russian guards who protect the Tajik frontier under an accord with the Tajik government.

The crisis has rung alarm bells in Russia and other states of former Soviet Central Asia. They fear a repeat of the Afghan war and concerned that fundamentalist islamic fighters could destabilise not only Tajikistan but the entire region.

Mr Olimov stressed the importance of talks on Saturday at which Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan agreed to take collective responsibility for defending each other's borders. He said units of all four countries, as well as Tajikistan's own forces, would be strengthened on the Afghan frontier and extra economic, military and humanitarian help would be provided.

BAKU - Armenian forces closed in on an important town near Azerbaijan's border with Iran and launched a new push westwards in the centre of the republic, Reuter reports.

'The whole of south-west Azerbaijan has been cut off from the rest of the country,' a Defence Ministry spokesman, Hafiz Gayibov, told reporters in the capital, Baku.