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Tajikistan: Latest Uprising Shows Peace Still Fragile

By Salim Aioubov and Bruce Pannier

Prague, 6 November 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The battles in northern Tajikistan between government forces and rebels loyal to a renegade officer are a reminder that a significant number of Tajiks were not satisfied with the accord that ended the country's civil war.

A troubling aspect of the latest fighting is the realization that two of the groups left out of the peace process seem to have joined forces. They are obviously prepared to resort to extreme measures to have themselves included in governing the country.

The two forces which have joined efforts in northern Tajikistan's Leninabad Region are those loyal to Colonel Mahmud Khudaberdiyev and forces loyal to former Prime Minister Abdumalik Abdullojonov.

Khudaberdiyev made the connection with Abdullojonov clear during negotiations with the government at the outset of hostilities this week. He demanded seats in the government, a withdrawal of government forces from the area of combat and an opportunity for Abdullojonov to speak on national television and radio. These conditions were rejected immediately by the Tajik government. The fighting worsened soon thereafter.

Khudaberdiyev, until August 1997, commanded the most able unit of the Tajik Army, the First Brigade, which was located in the southwest city of Kurgan-Tyube (Kurgan-Teppe). That unit was also the special rapid reaction force of the presidential guard.

But Khudaberdiyev too often resorted to military tactics to gain political changes. His unit marched on Dushanbe in January 1996, and again one year later, both times demanding government officials be dismissed from office. In August 1997, after the peace accord providing for the return of members of the United Tajik Opposition (UTO) had been signed, he tried to separate the southern Khatlon Oblast from the rest of the country.

During Tajikistan's five-year civil war, he and his unit had fought against the Islamic-dominated opposition and Khudaberdiyev was against their return to the country.

The attempt to extend the area under his control in August was the final act of disobedience the government was prepared to accept. Though it took two months, government forces finally drove Khudaberdiyev and the remainder of his unit into hiding, according to some rumors, in neighboring Uzbekistan.

Abdullojonov was Tajik Prime Minister in 1993. A native of Khujand, in the Leninabad Oblast, Abdullojonov ran against current President Imomali Rahmonov in the 1994 presidential elections. The victory of Rahmonov in that election was widely disputed and international observers recorded numerous cases of vote rigging and intimidation.

Abdullojonov says he did not make an issue of the results in the interest of national harmony. He later was posted to Moscow as Tajik Ambassador to Russia.

But he didn't serve long before deciding to form a new opposition group, the National Revival Movement, in 1995 and asked to be included in peace negotiations with the UTO. Both sides rejected this request. Abdullojonov began a life in exile, some say in neighboring Uzbekistan. He remains a popular figure in the Leninabad Oblast (region).

Many reports claim Khudaberdiyev has gathered 1,000 fighters but Tajik government officials dispute this. However, on the last day of April 1997, an assassination attempt was made on President Rahmonov when he was visiting Khujand. In the months that followed, many people from the area were arrested and sent to prisons and detention areas in the south. Some of them, including Abdullojonov's brother Abdulhafiz, were sentenced to death in February 1998.

The complaints of Leninabad residents against the growing assertion of centralized authority were ignored by the government. Local leaders who called on the people to protest were strictly punished.

The government's decision to deploy the elite Presidential Guard in the city of Chkalovsk, near Khujand, annoyed locals, who demanded the removal of officials from southern Tajikistan who were appointed by the central government.

Last July, Khudoberdiyev and Abdullojonov, both in exile, met each other for the first time in a small Uzbek village near of Tajik-Uzbek border. There was a confidential meeting, which included some influential leaders who had been left out of the peace accord and power-sharing in Dushanbe, including Yoqub Salimov, former interior minister and Saifiddin Turaev, former deputy speaker of the parliament.

They pledged to strengthen ties, but rejected plans of military actions against Rahmonov. According to other sources, they could not create any active alliance, because of division over the question of leadership.

Khudaberdiyev's force, despite its size or ability, is not likely to survive for long. The commander of the UTO forces, Mirzo Ziyoev, who is likely to be named Tajikistan's new Defense Minister in the ruling coalition, said that military units that formerly opposed Rahmonov's government were joining up with government forces to battle the rebel fighters in Khujand.

But the uprising shows there are significant factions which have been ignored during Tajikistan's slow road to peace. The government and the UTO have many differences to settle between themselves but this latest event proves neither has the luxury of forgetting there are other groups which are not participating in the peace process.