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Tajikistan: Talks Underway On Hostage Release

Dushanbe, 7 February 1997 (RFE/RL) - A Tajik presidential spokesman said talks are going on for the release of hostages held by an armed rebel group in Eastern Tajikistan.

Zafar Saidov, quoted by Itar-Tass, said a Tajik government delegation, headed by deputy Prime Minister Abdurakhmon Azimov, is in the village of Kalainav, some 80 kilometers east of Dushanbe, to negotiate with the gunmen. Envoys of Afghan opposition troops commander Akhmed Shah Masood have also arrived for the talks, as well as representatives of a rebel Tajik Islamic group, based in Aghanistan.

Earlier today Gerd Merrem, head of the UN mission to Tajikistan, confirmed that two of the 16 hostages, abducted by the gunmen in the last few days, had been released. Merrem said the two International Red Cross workers were on their way back to Dushanbe, and that the gunmen had agreed to release unconditionally a third hostage, an ill Austrian UN observer.

Meanwhile, an Itar-Tass correspondent, who is one of the hostages, told the agency's Moscow headquarters by satellite phone that the gunmen had released all four journalists but the journalists had of their free will decided to stay on to cover negotiations on the release of the remaining hostages.

Five UN personnel, four staffers of the UN refugee agency and a driver remain in captivity.

The gunmen, whose allegiances are unclear, are said to be demanding safe passage into Tajikistan for comrades in Afghanistan. Some 50,000 people died in Tajikistan's bloody four-year civil war until a ceasefire was reached between the government and the opposition last December.