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Tajikistan: Conflict Between Government, Opposition Forces May Hurt Economic Future

  • Bruce Pannier

As Tajikistan prepares to celebrate the four-year anniversary of the end of its civil war, two separate hostage-taking incidents last week served as a reminder that differences remain between the Tajik government and former opposition forces. RFE/RL correspondent Bruce Pannier reports that the incidents, which ended peacefully on Sunday, may hamper Tajikistan's efforts to lure foreign aid and investment into the country.

Prague, 19 June 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Next week, Tajikistan will mark four years of official peace. On 27 June 1997, the former Soviet republic's two warring factions -- the mainly Islamic United Tajik Opposition (UTO) and the Tajik government, comprised mostly of former Communist Party members -- signed a peace accord ending five years of civil war.

The two sides agreed to share power in the government, provide a general amnesty for anti-government groups and merge their armed forces into a unified Tajik Army. But last week, echoes of the old conflict were again felt in Tajikistan. In two separate incidents, former UTO fighters took hostages, including some foreign nationals, demanding the release of their comrades in prison in exchange for the hostages' safe return.

Both crises ended with no reported casualties. But the incidents underscore the fact that the country's peace process remains fragile.

Mansur Muakkalov was among the hostage-takers. His group, operating under the command of former UTO field commander Rahmon Sanginov, on 11 June took more than 10 people hostage -- including several policemen -- several kilometers outside the Tajik capital Dushanbe. Speaking Monday at a press conference in Dushanbe, Muakkalov explained the reason behind the hostage-taking:

"The main cause of the hostages being taken is that many of our comrades have been arrested and they [Tajik law enforcement authorities] asked $2,000 to $3,000 to free them. We have no money, so we are forced to take hostages."

On 15 June, another group of former UTO fighters -- under the command of Said Akhmatov -- took a second group of hostages in the Tavil-Dara region, some 180 kilometers east of Dushanbe. Akhmatov's group captured 15 workers -- including three Germans and one U.S. citizen -- from the German non-governmental organization Agro Action. The hostage-takers reiterated the demand that their comrades be released from prison.

Both incidents ended Sunday, with the hostages being released without amnesty being granted to the prisoners. On 18 June, former UTO field commander Sanginov said both incidents showed that there are still many in Tajikistan who are dissatisfied with the progress of the peace deal:

"We took the hostages, and freed them, to show the government that we are not only from one place, but from all regions [of the country] and can raise others [to do the same]. But we ask the government to keep its word and fulfill the amnesty. We are on the side of peace, we want peace. We have families, we are Muslims -- but the government must implement a peace which will not cause us harm."

Sanginov's complaints of unfair treatment by authorities are echoed by many among the former UTO. But his plea for amnesty appears unfounded.

The general amnesty agreed to at the end of the civil war covers crimes that could naturally occur during wartime. The prisoners whose freedom the hostage-takers were hoping to secure, however, are not in custody for crimes committed during the civil war. They are suspects in the murder of Tajik Deputy Interior Minister Habib Sanginov (no relation to the UTO field commander), who was shot and killed two months ago in Dushanbe.

Last week's hostage incident shows the Tajik government and their former opposition have a long way to go before the country can truly be considered one nation. Similar acts of violence were frequent following the end of the civil war, but the situation appeared to improve after parliamentary elections in February 2000.

The resolution of last week's crisis, in fact, indicates that the two sides are no longer so strictly divided. Two former UTO members -- Tajik Emergency Situations Minister Mirzo Ziyoyev and Deputy Prime Minister Hoja Akbar -- participated in the release of the hostages.

The Tajik Interior Ministry has said it is investigating the incident and may eventually file charges. But the event may further damage Tajikistan's already shaky reputation with the foreign business community. Germany's Agro Action has already said it needs to review its work in Tavil-Dara, where it was helping the area's farming industry recover from damage sustained during the civil war. Other companies in Dushanbe may be anxious about the security of their own foreign workers, where Sanginov's group may continue to operate, with little apparent censure from the government.