Refugees flee as 'power hungry' Tajiks fight on: As factions battle for ascendancy, Hugh Pope joins the 'losers in this war' at a bridge in Kizilkala in Tajikistan

Click to follow
THE BUS slowed to a crawl along the long bridge. Crouching behind the blown-up gun turret of a Russian tank at one end, a dozen pro- government Islamic defenders cocked their motley collection of weapons - a few Kalashnikov rifles, some shotguns and a short blunderbuss they called 'the man- stopper'.

The trickle of passing refugees scattered with their herds of cows and sheep, sensing that they had not yet escaped the battle that had helped split the former Soviet Republic of Tajikistan.

This time it was a false alarm. The bus was full of refugees, not the advancing rebel forces that have cut off much of the south.

'Let them through,' said Mahmutmetsama Kandjeyev, a former baker in charge of the checkpoint. 'But we have to be careful. We are the only forces between here and Dushanbe (the Tajik capital).'

A CIS detachment that once held the checkpoint departed on Monday, apparently after the Muslim nationalist government in the capital accused Russia of backing the rebels, and called for the withdrawal of Russian troops and for the Tajik youth to join a new national army.

Mr Kandjeyev accused the Russians of actively fighting against them. He and his men dismissed the evidence to the contrary beside him: the wreck of a CIS tank knocked out in an exchange of fire that blocked the rebel advance when fighting flared up about 10 days ago.

'The Russians are paranoid about anything Muslim. They are backing the bandits (rebels) because they are socialists and raise the old Soviet flag over the towns they capture,' Mr Kandjeyev said. 'The Russians want to annihilate the Tajik nation.'

The Russians reciprocate such sentiments, especially after recent shootings around Russian barracks in Dushanbe. Russian officers speak sympathetically of the rebels and are hostile towards the Muslim Democrat Alliance, which forced the former Communist President Rakhmon Nabiyev to share power after demonstrations in May and deposed him last month.

The Russian President, Boris Yeltsin, has sown further confusion by saying that he would withdraw Russian troops from the main trouble areas, while adding that some battalions would be sent in to cover their departure. Russian officers said they had had no information on this in Tajikistan.

'Tajikistan has already split into different countries,' said Valery Kochinov, a Russian colonel in charge of border security of this country of five million people. The four emerging cantons of Tajikistan certainly have some strange politics. The deposed Mr Nabiyev still calls himself president in the rich province of Leninabad, over the mountains to the north. In the spectacular Pamir ranges to the east is developing the world's only Ismaili Muslim state.

The war in the south is a struggle between pro-Russian ex-Communists and the Islamic alliance. On the front line, however, clashes can pit criminals from the old mafia system against radical Islamic fundamentalism. Mixed into the brew are strong allegiances to regional clans. The southern rebels are led by a man named Sangak, who served 23 years in jail for murder and other crimes before becoming head of Mr Nabiyev's presidential guard, the source of the guns with which he started his rebellion in June.

Despite the small number of fighters - at most a few thousand in all - the war has killed hundreds of people and caused the flight of more than 100,000 refugees, mostly to the inaccessible Kulyab region. Dushanbe is superficially calm, but street crime and food and fuel prices are rising fast.

'We pray there will be peace,' said a bearded Tajik elder selling pomegranates to travellers on the barren mountain roads south of the capital.

(Photograph omitted)