Russia shakes mailed fist at Taliban danger

Kremlin sounds alarm over security in Central Asia, writes Phil Reeves

Moscow - While Boris Yeltsin was in Paris bowing to Nato pressure on his western front, the eyes of his Moscow policy-makers were trained nervously on Central Asia yesterday, and in particular on the dangers which Russia believes flow from the dramatic Taliban triumphs in northern Afghanistan.

The Russian foreign ministry was "gravely concerned" about the "potential threat" to the southern frontier of the former Soviet Union following the Taliban's seizure of northern Afghanistan, gains which give the Islamic fundamentalists a firmer grip on the country than any regime since the Soviets were driven out in 1989.

Officials from Russia and eight ex-Soviet republics met in Moscow to discuss moves towards implementing a collective security treaty, never before used, under which members of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) have pledged to defend one another against external aggressors.

When news of the Taliban advances spread at the weekend, Russia placed on alert its 25,000 troops along the border with Tajikistan, amid fears that the region could be destabilised by a flood of refugees.

Nearly six years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Moscow thirsts for the influence that the Soviet Union wielded in Central Asia, not least because of the massive oil and gas reserves there. Its alarm was reflected in yesterday's newspapers: "Will there be war on the southern frontier of the CIS?" asked Izvestia. Nezavisimaya Gazeta floated the widely-held view that the US is covertly supporting the Taliban in order to control oil and gas pipelines out of the region.

The events in Afghanistan were "primarily an internal affair", a foreign ministry spokesman said yesterday. He pointed out that the Taliban have yet to threaten CIS borders, but emphasised that the CIS collective security treaty would be activated if this happened. Disapproving growls have also come from Yevgeny Primakov, Russia's Foreign Minister, in recent days.

Despite this, speculation has begun in Moscow that the Kremlin may soon recognise the Taliban government, despite its fear of the growth of Islamic fundamentalism in the countries of Central Asia and Russia itself, whose population includes millions of Muslims.

Following the flight from Mazar-i-Sharif of General Rashid Dostum, leader of the opposition alliance, the Taliban now controls 90 per cent of the country, including all major towns and cities. "What else can be done?" asked Viktor Kremenyuk, an analyst with the Moscow-based US-Canada Trust, "To stick to a non-existent or ephemeral government, or to recognise the reality?"

Such a move would not remove the general panic over the advance of the Taliban into northern Afghanistan, territory which was viewed by Moscow and Afghanistan's neighbours as a critical buffer zone.

The Taliban has insisted it has no designs on territory outside Afghanistan but such claims have done little to allay fears that religious zealots are closing in on the Muslim nations of former-Soviet Central Asia, all of which have secular governments: Kazakstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.

According to the Russian news agency Interfax, Kyrgyzstan's security and interior ministers yesterday travelled south to the border, "to direct fortifications", while Uzbekistan is reported to have reinforced its borders with fresh trenches.

It has not escaped the notice of his detractors that the Taliban leader, Amir-ul Momaneen, is otherwise known as the King of the Faithful, a title that markedly fails to acknowledge the existence of national borders.

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