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Tajikistan: Armed Forces Demobilize

Dushanbe, 22 April 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The chairman of Tajikistan's Commission for National Reconciliation, Said-Abdullo Nuri, says most opposition armed forces are expected to gather in demobilization centers by the end of this week.

Nuri told the visiting OSCE chairman, Polish foreign minister Bronislaw Geremek, in Dushanbe at the weekend that this included about 5,000 armed men in Tajikistan and about 500 others across the border in the Taloquan region of Afghanistan.

The demobilization centers are in the Garm and Karatigen valleys. The men are supposed to surrender their weapons on arrival. Within a month or less, they should be offered the chance of either joining the regular Tajik forces or taking a civilian job.

The disarmament of the armed forces is a core element in the peace agreement reached in June last year between the government and opposition to end five years of civil war which cost the lives of thousands.

But this first stage of what is called the "military protocol" of the peace agreement is months behind schedule. As a result, the elections which were to have been held in June or July this year will now probably be delayed until next year.

Despite the delay, Foreign Minister Talbak Nazarov told journalists accompanying Geremek, that -- if successful -- it will be a "considerable step forward" in implementing the peace agreement. He warned, however, that the peace process is "at the very beginning and still developing." Nazarov said that problems and stumbles were to be expected. "It is not easy to pass from the dialogue of the Kalashnikov to the that of words and thoughts," he said.

Both Nazarov and Nuri acknowledged that even in the best situation not all the armed forces in Tajikistan would be brought safely under control in the demobilization centers. Large areas of the countryside outside Dushanbe are under the control of local warlords who have ignored the demands of the peace agreement.

An RFE/RL correspondent who accompanied Geremek, noted that despite the peace agreement tensions remain high in Dushanbe. A curfew is enforced from 19:00 but the nights are still shattered by gunfire. About two weeks ago there was a heavy firefight between troops and opposition forces only 40 km outside the capital.

Nuri himself lives in constant danger of assassination. His meeting with Geremek took place in a heavily-guarded building in central Dushanbe. Men armed with Kalashnikovs, pistols and other weapons stood outside the entrance and lined the stairways to the meeting place on the second floor. Some wore the uniform of Soviet paratroopers but others were in civilian clothes. Nuri spends his night in a Government compound in the center of Dushanbe guarded by troops. Officials sent to Dushanbe by the United Nations, the IMF and the World Bank also live in the compound.

For security reasons, Geremek and his entourage were advised not to stay overnight in Dushanbe. Officials described the Polish foreign minister and the OSCE team as an "obvious target" for kidnapping by forces which could use them as hostages. U.N. and other international officials in Dushanbe say kidnapping is a constant threat.

Officials attached to OSCE's permanent mission in Dushanbe said they were "hopeful" that the gathering of opposition armed forces in the demobilization centers would bring a real end to the outbursts of fighting but said it was unlikely that all shooting would come to an end.

"The peace treaty ended real fighting, but there are still frequent skirmishes," said one official who preferred not to be identified.

"Both sides have a problem with teenage boys who have known nothing but conflict since they were young. They don't have work and so they run around with their guns. Often it comes to shooting."

Some were also doubtful about the number of 5,000 opposition fighters in Tajikistan allegedly gathering in the demobilization centers. They said not all opposition fighters are in the "regular" opposition. Officials believe there are also others who work at jobs in the countryside with a gun at home. At times they leave their jobs to become involved in a shooting operation and then return to their daily work.

Then there are the armed gangs. One is said to be controlled by a renegade colonel, Makhmud Khodoiberdyev, who fought the Government last year for control of the Tursunzade aluminum smelter, which is one of the biggest foreign currency earners in the country.

Some groups seize foreigners as hostage. Last year, a group led by two brothers named Sodirov kidnapped two foreign aid workers. One aid worker was released, but the other was killed during a rescue attempt by government forces. This same group had kidnapped United Nations observers twice previously. Just last month, an armed group led by a man known as Mullo Abdullo raided a shipment of humanitarian aid.

A U.N. official said the possibility of paying all these groups outside the peace agreement to surrender their weapons had been considered. "However many of us fear they will only use the money to buy better weapons," he said.

In an interview with journalists accompanying Geremek, Nuri said through an interpreter that the United Tajik Opposition genuinely wanted the peace agreement to work and elections to be held. He added that he personally believed that President Imomali Rakhmanov also wanted peace.

"We are on the threshold of democratization," Nuri said. "But it is impossible to move towards democracy in the situation we now have in Tajikistan."

Nuri said the delay in implementing last year's peace agreement was the lack of trust between the Government and the opposition. But after seven months, there seemed to be more trust and it was possible that things would begin to move.

Nuri claimed that the war had been "imported from outside". He said it had been a "war between those who wanted democracy and freedom and those who want totalitarianism and bureaucracy." He charged that those who favored totalitarianism had "misused the religious and nationalist feelings of the people."

There are eight legal political parties in Tajikistan and several others which were banned, including Nuri's own group the Islamic Revival party. Last year's peace agreement including a lifting of the ban.

Nuri said he was confident the United Tajik Opposition would do well in the elections, whenever they may be held. He listed six parties which are part of the UTO, and then showed a sheet of paper and said: "We have now been joined by the Party of Economic and Political Progress. The united opposition is on the right road."

The road to the elections involves the meetings of various commissions on military, political and legal matters in which the Government and the opposition are represented equally. The ideas generated by these groups are intended to produce a series of amendments to the 1994 constitution.

The suggestions are to be approved by a number of bodies and then go to President Rakhmanov. Following his approval the proposed constitutional amendments will be put to the public in a referendum which -- with considerable luck -- may be held later this year. After that, the elections will take place.