Tajikistan refugees flee to Afghanistan

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DOZENS of desperate refugees fleeing heavy fighting in the Central Asian republic of Tajikistan are reported to have drowned while attempting to cross the icy Oxus river into Afghanistan, itself wracked by civil war.

Relief agencies are trying to send supplies to more than 100,000 refugees huddled on the banks of the Oxus, many of whom have no food, fuel or shelter. 'It's a complete desert up there - nothing but rocks and sand dunes, and there is snow on the ground,' Oxfam's director for Afghanistan, Michael Semple, said by telephone from Islamabad.

About a third of the refugees have crossed the river on makeshift rafts or inner tubes into Afghanistan's Kunduz province, but Mr Semple said the area was already heavily burdened with people displaced by fighting further south. 'Its capacity to look after this new influx is negligible,' he said. 'Things must be desperate in Tajikistan for people to be escaping into Afghanistan.'

Russian peace-keeping troops yesterday intervened in the fighting between ex-Communist forces and Islamic radicals in Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan, accusing the radicals of kidnapping four Russian officers. The 201st Motor Rifle Division sent an armoured column and a detachment of paratroopers to a suburb of Dushanbe to secure the release of the hostages, Russian television reported.

The Russians have so far promised to stay out of the virtual civil war in Tajikistan, and did not intervene when the ex-Communists drove their Islamic rivals out of the centre of the city on Thursday. Sporadic shooting was still going on in southern areas of Dushanbe yesterday, but there was no information on casualties. According to a Russian news agency, local television showed hundreds of burned corpses in the streets.

The International Committee of the Red Cross says the fighting has displaced one in 10 of the 5 million Tajiks, driving many towards the Tajik-occupied areas of north-eastern Afghanistan, such as Kunduz province. But Kunduz itself is unstable, with several of Afghanistan's myriad armed factions vying for control.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has sent a convoy of trucks loaded with quilts, tents, food and medicine from its headquarters in Mazar-e-Sharif, northern Afghanistan's largest town, to the isolated border area where the refugees are scattered. A spokeswoman in Geneva said the convoy was expected to arrive yesterday.

Most of the fleeing Tajiks are said to be concentrated around Imam Sahib, Qalazal and Shir Khan, a river port serving Kunduz town. The UNHCR said they had been living in the open on the Tajik side for up to two weeks before beginning to cross the river last weekend. New arrivals, many barefoot and without warm clothes, were arriving at the rate of 5,000 a day. Relief officials said some were suffering from bullet wounds and exposure.

Afghanistan, where 3 million people are estimated to be at risk as winter closes in, can hardly cope with refugees coming in from outside. The capital, Kabul, has been devastated by the struggle for power since the Communist regime collapsed in April. Up to 500,000 of the city's inhabitants have already been discplaced, and fresh fighting has broken out during the past week.

About 1.5 million of the 5 million Afghans who fled to Pakistan and Iran during the country's 14- year civil war have returned since President Najibullah's fall eight months ago, but many have found their home villages devastated and their fields littered with mines. With Afghanistan's five main grain silos empty and few and far between, and fuel expensive when it can be found, aid agencies are warning that many of the country's poorest people may not survive the winter.

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