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Worries Grow As Tajik Government Continues Operation Against Militants

  • RFE/RL

Government forces have set up over a dozen checkpoints along the road connecting Dushanbe and the administrative center of the Rasht district, and are searching passing vehicles and their passengers.

Government forces have set up over a dozen checkpoints along the road connecting Dushanbe and the administrative center of the Rasht district, and are searching passing vehicles and their passengers.

Government troops in Tajikistan continue their operation against militants in the country's eastern Rasht Valley, a onetime stronghold of Islamic opposition forces.

Four soldiers from an OMON special-forces unit and a police officer have been reported killed in the fighting so far, according to local media. Two insurgents were also reported killed.

Interior Ministry spokesman Mahmadullo Asadulloev said today that a cache with weapon supplies -- including grenade launchers and explosives – as well as food, medication, and "extremist propaganda literature" was found during a search in Rasht's Kamarob Gorge.

The latest operation began in the area after two dozen government soldiers were killed in an ambush in the Kamarob Gorge on September 19. Several other soldiers injured during the attack later died in hospital, bringing the total number of casualties from that attack to 28.

Officials blamed the ambush on foreign and local Islamic militants, including former Islamic opposition fighters who fought against the government during the country's 1992-97 civil war before signing a national peace and reconciliation accord.

A checkpoint on the road to Rasht.
The head of Tajikistan's Security Council, Amirqul Azimov, has been in Rasht since last week along with the deputy heads of the Interior and Defense ministries and the National Security Committee.

Before his trip to the area, Azimov said there would not be negotiations with militants and he demanded they put down their weapons.

Azimov said the government had enough resources to destroy the armed group. Without naming any specific country, Azimov blamed "foreign states" for backing the insurgency that he said were interested in destabilizing Tajikistan.

Region Cut Off

Correspondents from RFE/RL's Tajik Service say government forces have set up some 15 checkpoints along the road connecting Dushanbe and the town of Gharm, which is the administrative center of the Rasht district, about 220 kilometers east of the capital. Government troops are searching passing vehicles and their passengers.

Roads to the Kamarob Gorge remain closed and only locals living in villages alongside the gorge are allowed to enter the area, according to RFE/RL's correspondents in the region.

Telephone lines to the Rasht Valley have been cut since military operations began in the region. State-run media provide little coverage of the situation in the valley.

"It has become extremely difficult for media representatives to get any information about the ongoing events in the east, as official press centers are virtually closed and communication lines remain blocked," reports Asia Plus, the country's leading independent news agency.

'Panic And Rumors'

Even local villagers living in areas surrounding the Kamarob Gorge complain about the lack of information.

Many families are now afraid to entrust their young men to the army.
Halim, a resident of the town of Navobod in Rasht, says the lack of information is causing panic and rumors among villagers.

"You hear all kinds of rumors, all kinds of contrasting news every day, no one can say for sure, what exactly has been going on," says Halim, who didn't want to give his full name.

A nighttime curfew has also been imposed in the area. "After 8 p.m. only dogs move on our streets," Halim says. "Even if someone gets ill, they can't go out to get medication or medical aid."

Saltanat, who lives in the village of Kochon, near Kamarob, and also didn't want to give her surname, says that "three or four houses and a few barns were burned" in the latest clashes.

"Everyone had run away to hide when [the military operation] took place, so there was no one to put out the fire," she adds.

Officials in Dushanbe have promised that the owners of destroyed properties will receive compensation from state.

Saltanat says Rasht residents, who experienced bloody fighting during the civil war in the 1990s, are anxious about renewed tensions in the area.

Fleeing The Draft

But anxiety goes far beyond the Rasht Valley. The ongoing military operation and the deaths of government troops have prompted some parents to send their sons out of the country as the new military draft season begins this month.

"My parents want me to go to Russia, because they are afraid I will be taken into the army and sent to Rasht," says Murod Sobitov, an 18-year-old from the southern Khatlon region, echoing the apprehensions of many families throughout the country.

Air-ticket prices to Russian cities are going up due to the increased demand, and a ticket office in the southern city of Kurgon-teppa confirmed that tickets to Russian destinations had been sold out until the end of the month.

"Families are spending their last money to buy tickets," says Furqat Jalolov, a resident of the southern town of Vakhsh whose two sons have recently left for Russia.

"After what happened in Rasht, we have lost our confidence in the army," he says. "How can we send our children there in such a situation? We think the army sends young, inexperienced soldiers to the [conflict] area, without any training."

Suhrob Safarov, from the southern Bokhtar district, says he just sent his younger brother to Russia. "Everybody is trying to skip the army this year," he says. "Only in our village, which is quite small, there were seven or eight young men of conscript age, and all of them have left the country."

written by Farangis Najibullah in Prague,with contributions from RFE/RL's Tajik Service