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Tajikistan: Opposition Leader Responds To Charges From Uzbekistan

By Bruce Pannier And Salimjon Aioubov

Prague, 4 June 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The leader of the United Tajik Opposition (UTO) yesterday angrily denied allegations about him which recently began appearing in the media in neighboring Uzbekistan.

In an interview with RFE/RL's Tajik Service, Said Abdullo Nuri said, quoting: "What they are saying about me are lies".

Since last week, media reports in Uzbekistan about Nuri and the UTO have claimed that the UTO is helping Uzbek extremists, namely those who were responsible for the bombings in the Uzbek capital, Tashkent, in February. Newspaper articles allege Nuri is in contact with two men Uzbek authorities say are terrorists - Takhir Yuldash and Juma Namangani - and that their followers have found sanctuary in UTO-controlled areas of Tajikistan. An article in the Uzbek daily newspaper Halq Sozi this week said that Nuri is even in contact with Usama bin Laden, suspected by the U.S. government for the bombings of two of its embassies last year in Africa.

Nuri yesterday specifically denied that allegation:

"It is completely libelous. I did not meet with bin Laden ever and I do not have any connection with him. But it is true that the [UTO has] been in Afghanistan in the past and we had established relations with all Afghan and Pakistani factions. The aim of these contacts was to provide safety for our refugees during the fighting between these groups in Afghanistan."

Forces of the UTO fought against the Tajik government during the 1992-1997 Tajik civil war. After the Tajik Peace Accord was signed in June 1997, Uzbekistan signed on as one of the eight guarantor-countries of the peace. Under the terms of the accord the UTO was to receive 30 percent of the positions in government at the federal, regional and local levels. Problems remain in the implementation.

In one dispute, the UTO is pushing for its nominee to the position of Defense Minister, field commander Mirzo Ziyoyev. Ziyoyev is best known to Uzbek authorities as the man who last year reminded all that the ancient cities of Samarkand and Bukhara, the second and third largest cities in present-day Uzbekistan, are historically Tajik. The Uzbek paper Halq Sozi wrote that Ziyoyev is involved in narcotics trafficking and has ordered people killed without any legal authority.

Nuri said that this, and allegations against him as well, are not helpful to the fragile peace process in Tajikistan and seem to contradict Uzbekistan's role as a guarantor of the peace:

"The statements coming from [Uzbekistan], which is a peace guarantor, accusing us of relations with terrorists, is a violation of the peace accord. It is interference which is aimed at complicating the peace process in Tajikistan."

The situation may provide insight into last week's very secretive talks between Uzbek and Tajik officials in the northern Tajik city of Khujand. Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov flew to Khujand for the talks, and there were rumors that Uzbek President Islam Karimov also took part.

The meeting was held in such secrecy that there is still no official confirmation of whether Karimov was present. The only clear fact to emerge was that Uzbekistan and Tajikistan had agreed to cooperate in the fight against terrorism, national extremism and drug trafficking. The two countries have had cold relations for more than six months, so the meeting and the rapid agreement was surprising. And it was after the talks in Khujand that the media campaign against Nuri and the UTO began.

In an interview with Iranian radio on Monday, a representative of Uzbekistan's banned Birlik Party, Tolib Yokubov, said "the government of Uzbekistan will, of course, try to crush the armed groups and representatives of the opposition in Tajikistan and Afghanistan." Yokubov said that as the two governments are "remnants of [governments] of the former USSR" they can come to agreement quickly in the right conditions. Yokubov said that in his opinion the goal of the negotiations between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan is "to fight the armed Uzbek opposition on the territory of Tajikistan."

There is speculation that the media campaign against the UTO in the Uzbek media may also be related to presidential elections planned for Tajikistan late this year. Any media campaign which damages the credibility of the UTO could be helpful to President Rakhmonov, who hasn't officially declared his candidacy but is expected to run.

(Salimjon Aioubov is with RFE/RL's Tajik Service.)