Tomorrow (27 June) marks the fourth anniversary of the Tajik peace accords. On the outskirts of the Tajik capital Dushanbe, echoes of the five-year civil war have been heard since 22 June, when government troops launched an attack against former opposition field commanders and their supporters. RFE/RL correspondent Bruce Pannier reports that the fighting poses one of the greatest challenges to peace in Tajikistan since the war ended in 1997.
Prague, 26 June 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Tomorrow Tajikistan marks the fourth anniversary of the peace accord that ended five years of civil war. But any celebratory mood has been marred by fighting raging on the eastern edge of the capital Dushanbe.
Despite a 1997 accord granting amnesty to opposition fighters from the United Tajik Opposition (UTO), and even elevating some to government posts, peace has been unsteady in Tajikistan. The most recent challenge came on June 22, when the Tajik government launched an attack on two former UTO field commanders and their supporters who, the government says, are responsible for numerous criminal acts. More than 50 people, including civilians, have been reported killed and dozens injured in the fighting.
Former UTO field commanders Rahmon Sanginov and Mansur Muakkalov were both given positions in the government following the 1997 accord, but both later lost their positions due to infractions or insubordination. Since that time, they and their supporters have reportedly been making a living by drug trafficking, kidnapping, and assassination. Earlier this month, Sanginov and Muakkalov's group took a number of hostages, including five policemen. The group wanted to exchange the hostages for four of their supporters who are in police custody for the April murder of Tajikistan's deputy interior minister.
The hostages were released with no concessions from the government, but Sanginov vowed that he was not finished. The Tajik government apparently took him seriously and acted first.
On 22 June, the Tajik Interior Ministry announced the start of "Operation Lightning," targeting the commanders and their group. The government claimed there was evidence linking Sanginov, Muakkalov, and their supporters to some 400 serious crimes since 1998, including 270 murders.
The government attack leaves other former UTO field commanders in a difficult position. They can neither openly side with Sanginov nor support the government's actions against him. Some have called for a meeting with as many of the former field commanders as possible to discuss the latest events with Sanginov, Muakkalov, and Said Akhmatov, another former UTO field commander in the Tavil-Dara region 180 kilometers east of Dushanbe. Akhmatov also took some hostages earlier this month, with the same goal as Sanginov and Muakkalov.
Muhammadruzi Iskanderov is a former UTO field commander now serving in a government post as the head of the committee for community service, responsible for gas and electricity supplies. He says the situation behind the fighting remains unclear:
"We do not know which side is right. It is not clear to us if Sanginov is at fault, or the government. But it is clear to us that the government is shelling civilians. We cannot agree at all with the military response, because it is the civilians who are suffering."
Mirzokhudja Nizomov, another former field commander who is now the head of Tajikistan's customs committee, said he is prepared to act as a mediator between the government and the armed group:
"I am also ready to mediate between the government and Sanginov but it is still unclear to me what is happening. If he [Sanginov] respects us, then we are ready to mediate."
Iskanderov and Nizomov's comments show that even four years after the peace accord, their support for the former UTO fighters survives, and they are reluctant to back the government fully.
Civilian casualties have been reported during the fighting, but government officials have not provided exact figures. RFE/RL's Tajik Service conducted interviews with civilians to determine how much destruction had taken place in the area in less than one week.
Akbar Sangov lives in the village of Rohaty, about 15 kilometers east of Dushanbe. From a hospital in Dushanbe, he recounted what happened in Rohaty:
"The government attacked using multiple rocket launchers. The wall of our house fell down on three of us. Shelling from tanks killed three of my children."
Rashid Salimov, who said government forces were circling the area of conflict, described how his own village had been affected:
"In the village, many houses have been burned down, trees were destroyed by the shelling, the school building was destroyed and all our wheat fields have also been destroyed."
The government says it is now in the mopping-up stage of the operation, despite the fact that Sanginov and Muakkalov have not been apprehended. Nearly 70 of their supporters, however, are in custody and will likely be tried soon.
In a statement to the nation today, Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov spoke sternly about the former UTO field commanders and their supporters. He said:
"Peace came to Tajikistan at a high price. Those who commit terrorist acts, or are involved in the illegal business of drug trafficking, or come out against the peace process [and] against the people, will receive neither mercy nor forgiveness."
If convicted of their crimes, many of the former UTO supporters could receive heavy sentences. This in turn could deepen the rift between the Tajik government and the former opposition fighters. After four years without war, peace still seems a distant prospect.