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Tajikistan: Rebellion Prompts Re-examination Of Peace Process

Prague, 10 November 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Tajikistan's fragile peace process passed a milestone in recent days as the government, allied with former opposition forces, crushed a rebellion in the north of the country led by renegade former Tajik Army Colonel Mahmud Khudoiberdyev.

The combined large-scale operation by the secular Tajik government's soldiers and the mostly Islamic fighters of the United Tajik Opposition (UTO) marked the first time President Imomali Rakhmonov was able to decline Russian offers of military help to maintain peace in his own country.

Rakhmonov thanked Russia for its support but said that Dushanbe was able to deal with the crisis using its own forces. That statement came after Rakhmonov met with the commander of the UTO military units, Mirzo Ziyoev, who pledged his fighters would help the government crush the rebellion.

According to news reports, more than 300 former opposition fighters entered the battle against Khudoiberdyev's supporters in the Khujand and Aini districts of Tajikistan's northern Leninabad Region.

After six days of fighting, the government was able to announce Sunday it had pushed the rebels out of their strongholds in the city of Khujand and also in the town of Aini and cut off their escape routes in the mountains. A government spokesman said that it appeared Khudoiberdyev himself had fled to Uzbekistan. The Uzbek foreign ministry later denied that it is harboring Khudoiberdyev.

According to opposition leader Habib Sanginov, the UTO was ready to send another 800 fighters to the north if needed to join the battle against Khudoiberdyev's forces, which were reported to number some 1,000 men.

Analysts say that the participation of the opposition forces in crushing the rebellion demonstrated the strength of the military protocol the government and opposition signed in June of last year.

It also strengthened confidence between the two sides and demonstrated the solidity of the reintegration of their forces.

Some officials in Dushanbe were ready to go even further in praising the cooperation. One called the joint operation a major step forward in the government's and opposition's ability to create a unified national army. UTO military commander Ziyoev is considered by many observers as likely to be named Tajikistan's new Defense Minister in the ruling coalition.

But even as the joint victory of the government and UTO marked a new level of solidarity in Dushanbe, the rebellion in the north showed how far Tajikistan still has to go before becoming a stable country after years of civil war.

More than 40 percent of Tajikistan's population live in Leninabad Region, whose agriculture and industry account for some 80 percent of the country's gross domestic product.

During the civil war, while the southern part of country was aflame, the northern region maintained calm and order, attracting foreign investments and implementing economic reforms.

The peace agreement signed between Rakhmonov's government and the UTO did not include political leaders from the Leninabad Region. Analysts say for that reason many Tajiks, particularly in northern regions, do not consider the peace accord as fully representing their interests. Khudoiberdyev apparently believed that dissatisfaction created an opportunity for him to expand his northern power base.

Some Tajik political leaders, such as the Islamic Party's chairman Muhammadsharif Himmatzoda and the National Movement's head Hokimsho Muhabbat openly criticize the peace accord as unequal, but condemn the path chosen by Khudoiberdyev.

In an interview with RFE/RL, Himmatzoda noted that northern leaders were excluded from the peace talks that led to the accord between the UTO and the government. But he continued:

"In an interim period the implementation of the peace agreement will create proper conditions for participation of all political parties in upcoming elections."

He added that this course requires using only political means -- not arms and bloodshed -- to press political aims.

Critics of Rakhmonov's government have often described it as a ruling clan from a small southern village. Many leaders of political parties are not seen as having any particular ideology but simply as representing their particular ethnic group. For this reason, some observers say, the support of UTO leaders against the rebellion was seen by many Leninabad inhabitants as simply a concerted effort at isolating northern leaders from power.

Analysts warn that such perceptions, coupled with reported mistreatment by both government and opposition soldiers toward civilians in mop-up operations in the north, risk alienating the northern population further from the peace agreement. That would only further delay the process of nation-building in Tajikistan.