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Central Asia: CIS Plans Rapid-Reaction Force To Fight Terrorism

Two meetings of CIS member-states over the next several weeks will be used to discuss collective security arrangements, including plans to develop a rapid-reaction force. A proposal to deploy the special force, which will target militant Islamic incursions into Central Asia from Afghanistan, has won both fans and detractors in Russia. In this first of a two-part series, RFE/RL Moscow correspondent Sophie Lambroschini looks at the latest developments in preparing CIS military forces to fight what is seen as the growing threat of Islamic extremism.

Moscow, 22 May 2001 (RFE/RL) -- As member states of the Commonwealth of Independent States meet twice over the next several weeks, issues of common security will be high on the agenda.

This week at a special gathering in Yerevan, the six members of the CIS Collective Security Council are expected to give the green light to the creation of a rapid-reaction force to fight Islamic extremists in Central Asia. The council -- which is comprised of Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Armenia -- will also discuss wider security issues related to the threat of what has been labeled "international terrorism" in the region.

A second meeting, during the general CIS summit of all 12 member states early next month (beginning 1 June) in Minsk, will also consider the issue of common security.

CIS officials have presented the rapid-reaction force as the "operational" arm of the commonwealth's antiterrorist efforts, which primarily target Islamic extremism. Russia considers Islamic militants to be its adversaries both in Central Asia and in internal trouble spots like Chechnya.

Last month, Security Council leaders from Russia, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan met in Yerevan to outline how a joint rapid-reaction force should work. As envisioned, the force would comprise a battalion from each of the member states -- amounting to a total of about 1,700 men.

Yury Yarov is the head of the CIS executive committee, the commonwealth's central organ in charge of finances. He told RFE/RL earlier this month that the primary purpose of the force is to defend the region against militant Islamic threats from Taliban-controlled parts of Afghanistan as well as from within the CIS.

"The [battalions] you are speaking about, that do not exist yet but may be created, will -- as I understand it -- each be based in their own country. Then, in case of a threat, or in case of actions on the part of some extremist groups or bands of terrorists, the CIS antiterrorist center and the country concerned can decide to send [the battalions] in for immediate help in liquidating the terrorist bases or stopping them from pushing further into the country."

The CIS already has the beginnings of a collective military force in its CIS peacekeeping troops. Some 1,500 troops are now serving in Georgia's breakaway region of Abkhazia, to help, Moscow says, maintain peace between separatists and Georgian nationalists. From 1993 until late last year, CIS peacekeepers were also based in Tajikistan, serving mostly as border guards to prevent drug smuggling from Afghanistan. The troops, mostly Russian, have remained in Tajikistan, but are now working under a bilateral agreement between the two countries rather than as a CIS body.

Yarov explained the difference between the new rapid-reaction force and the so-called "blue berets," as the CIS peacekeeping troops are called:

"There [in the case of the peacekeeping forces], all of the [CIS member] states, the whole [CIS] community, decided whether or not the forces should be set up, equipped and [given] a mandate outlining their functions. Here [in the case of the rapid-reaction force], it's clear that they will be reacting in an operational way to situations at the request of a single state to solve a precise task. They will liquidate [threats] already present in the country, or prevent them from entering the country. That's all. They do that and then they go home."

The antiterrorist center that will serve as the "brain" for such operations was created late last year. The Russian press has reported that the center is expected to open a base in Bishkek along with its head office in Moscow.

According to Yarov, the anti-terrorist center, although required to file its budget with the executive committee, works outside central CIS structures.

In addition to monitoring the security situation in the CIS, the center is also used as a clearinghouse for domestic security services looking to centralize their intelligence on international and domestic terrorism.

Yarov called the center -- which is run by General Boris Mylnikov, a former member of Russia's Security Council -- a "closed" body that "does not talk to the press."

Yury Golotyuk, a military analyst for the "Vremya Novostei" daily who has spent much of his career reporting from Central Asia, has said that the regional reaction force is actually meant to replace the CIS peacekeeping troops. He called the creation of the rapid-reaction force a simple matter of "exchanging blue helmets for green ones."

In his reports, Golotyuk has criticized the move, saying the decision to replace the peacekeeping troops with the new force came as soon as the collective security treaty. CIS "managed to create a more or less functioning system of military partnership that worked on the ground in Tajikistan and Abkhazia."