Russia props up Tajik regime

DUSHANBE (AFP) - Russia has ordered its Dushanbe 201st Division, which has 200 T-72 tanks, to defend Tajikistan's former Communist regime against 'Islamic fundamentalism'.

The Russian Defence Minister, General Pavel Grachev, on a visit here at the end of last week, hammered home the message that Russia was conscious of its interests in this former Soviet Central Asian republic. The former Soviet army unit, undermined by draft dodging, is to be brought back up to strength while air defence systems, removed while the Islamic Democratic opposition was in power, are to be put back in place.

'We cannot allow a global conflict to start from Tajikistan,' Gen Grachev said in the presence of the army officers and President Imomali Rakhmanov, who has been calling on Moscow for help for weeks.

For Grigory Diomin, commander of the division's tank regiment, the message is clear. 'Now we know what our job is. The 201st is a forward position for Russia in Tajikistan.' The 34-year-old officer, promoted to colonel by Gen Grachev for his tank operations during the civil war here, warned that 'we will use our guns to seize control if there are any border violations' by elements from Afghanistan.

Russia fears that Tajik Muslims who fled to Afghanistan may, with help of Afghan warlords, be planning attacks across the border.

After three months of bitter fighting, the nationalist troops of the Popular Front of Sangak Safarov control most of the country except for the Garm region in the north-east, which bars access to the Pamir mountains where the remnants of the Islamic-Democratic opposition are in hiding.

(Photograph omitted)

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