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Uzbekistan: Tensions Rising On Afghan Border

Tensions are rising in Central Asia. Afghanistan's ruling Taliban has accused Uzbekistan of violating its airspace. The Taliban is also reported to be massing troops on the Uzbek border. RFE/RL correspondent Bruce Pannier looks at the events leading up to what now amounts to a stand-off.

Prague, 2 June 2000 (RFE/RL) -- It started two months ago as a Russian official's vague answer to a reporter's hypothetical question. Now, it has thousands of soldiers along the Uzbek-Afghan and Tajik-Afghan borders eyeing each other suspiciously.

In April, Russian security secretary Sergei Ivanov surprised reporters in Dushanbe by saying Russia would not rule out pre-emptive strikes against the Taliban militia in Afghanistan as part of Russia's fight against terrorism. He said if Russia acts strictly according to the "rules" in fighting terrorism, it would always lose.

Since then, Ivanov and other officials have repeated similar statements, and mutual accusations are flying across the region's borders.

Afghanistan's ruling Taliban accuses Uzbekistan of sending planes into Afghan airspace this week. Uzbekistan denies it. Krygyzstan says 1,000 Islamic militants are massed across its border in Tajikistan. The Tajiks deny this.

The Taliban has reinforced the Afghan border town of Hairaton and is warning of dire consequences if there is an attack. It appears that everyone is gearing up for a fight.

The CIS Central Asian states -- with the exception of Turkmenistan, which remains neutral -- have never trusted the Taliban. Uzbek President Islam Karimov has warned his neighbors about the Taliban practically since they appeared in Afghanistan in 1994.

Part of the tension is due to the large amount of illegal drugs that continue to come over the border from Afghanistan.

The CIS Central Asian states accuse the Taliban of aiding in the drug trade. The Taliban, in turn, accuses the Central Asian states of aiding Afghanistan's anti-Taliban opposition.

Equally credible then are claims by the CIS Central Asian states and Russia that Islamic extremists from their countries find a safe haven in Afghanistan and even have training camps there. Now Russia is telling the CIS Central Asian states it is time to do something about the situation.

On a trip to the Uzbek capital Tashkent two weeks ago (19 May), President Vladimir Putin repeated his pledge that Russia would come down hard on terrorism.

"It's no secret for anyone anymore that recently, criminal attempts have been made through terrorist means to divide up the post-Soviet space. And if we don't halt this aggressive attempt, together with our Uzbek friends here in the south, we will encounter it at home."

The tough talk is meant to bolster the confidence of those states that confronted Islamic militancy last year, when the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan invaded southern Kyrgyzstan from bases in Tajikistan. Authorities in Russia, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan all say the militants, known as the IMU, have bases in Afghanistan.

Russia's threat on terrorist camps in Afghanistan applies to the IMU camps also. Kremlin spokesman on Chechnya Sergei Yastrzhembsky said last week that representatives of Chechen leader Aslan Maskhadov, international terrorist Osama bin Laden and IMU leader Juma Namangani all met in the northern Afghan city of Mazar-i-Sharif recently.

Kyrgyz president Askar Akayev, perhaps understandably, supports the idea of raids on Afghanistan. All of last summer's fighting was on his country's territory. But Uzbekistan's Karimov, who has long warned of the Taliban and the terrorists they harbor, has distanced himself from Russia's rhetoric. Uzbekistan shares a border with Afghanistan, and is closer to the line of fire. That could also explain Tajikistan's lack of comment.

Taliban officials vow that Uzbekistan and Tajikistan will suffer dire consequences if Afghanistan is attacked. The alleged violation of Afghan airspace this week has aggravated the situation.

Several newspapers in Pakistan report the Taliban has been building up troops on the Uzbek border. The "Pakistan Observer" wrote yesterday that, in its words, "thousands of armed Taliban have taken up positions in Hairatan bordering Uzbekistan." It said the Taliban has also deployed missiles and heavy weapons on the hilltops. Russia's ITAR-TASS news agency reported approximately the same information.

Taliban Information Minister Kudratullah Jamal said his government has protested the airspace violations to the United Nations. Jamal said the Taliban did not fire on the Uzbek planes this time, but that it will defend itself if attacked.

Uzbek Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahodyr Umarov has denied that Uzbek planes crossed into Afghan airspace.

"Uzbekistan's Foreign Ministry categorically denies reports from the Afghan Information Agency about violations of Afghan airspace by Uzbek planes."

Last year, however, the Uzbek government denied its planes hit targets in Tajikistan and then later admitted its planes had been involved.

Everyone in this volatile situation is talking about attacking, repelling, defending -- not seeking a peaceful resolution. Some Russian officials now give the impression they are ready to hit Chechen rebels at their alleged bases in Afghanistan, saying such attacks would eliminate a major source of support for rebels in Chechnya.

(Iskander Aliyev of the Tajik Service contributed to this report.)