Troops from Tajikistan's Interior Ministry today launched an attack against former opposition fighters who last week took a number of hostages in an attempt to win the release of several of their supporters from prison. Government soldiers are using helicopters and artillery in their attack on the fighters, in one of the largest military operations since the end of the Tajik civil war four years ago. RFE/RL correspondent Bruce Pannier looks at the events unfolding in the Central Asian state.
Prague, 22 June 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Residents in the Tajik capital Dushanbe spent today observing a battle raging on the western outskirts of the city. Gunfire was reportedly audible throughout the city, and smoke from artillery shells and helicopter gunship rockets drifted over buildings, as Interior Ministry forces launched an attack on former United Tajik Opposition (UTO) field commander Rahmon Sanginov and his supporters.
RFE/RL's Tajik Service reports that at least one civilian has been killed and four others wounded in today's fighting. Two government soldiers have also reportedly been killed.
Today's events mark the worst fighting between government forces and former UTO groups since 1997, when a Tajik peace accord ended five years of civil war. By midday, it was apparent battles were being fought not only on the outskirts of Dushanbe, but also 180 kilometers to the east in the Tavil-Dara region, where another UTO outpost is located.
Last week (June 11), Sanginov and another former UTO field commander, Mansur Muakkalov, took some 15 people hostage on the outskirts of Dushanbe. They demanded the release of four former UTO fighters being held on suspicion of murdering Deputy Interior Minister Habib Sanginov (no relation to Rahmon) two months ago.
Several days later (June 15), another former UTO field commander, Said Akhmatov, also took hostages, including three German nationals and one U.S. citizen, in the Tavil-Dara region. His demand echoed that of the first group.
By Sunday (June 17) however, both groups of hostages were freed unharmed, without the release of the hostage-takers' imprisoned supporters. The following day, Sanginov and Muakkalov -- who were not arrested for their actions -- held a press conference in Dushanbe to complain that former UTO fighters were being victimized by the authorities. They said that taking hostages was their only form of recourse to help their friends, and promised more such incidents if their demands were not met.
The Tajik Interior Ministry says today's attack was aimed at finally reining in Sanginov's group, which the ministry said was responsible for a number of serious crimes and terrorist acts during the country's 1992-1997 civil war. The ministry also accused Sanginov's group of being responsible for some 400 serious crimes since 1998, including 270 murders.
UTO supporters received a general amnesty as part of the 1997 peace accord, which freed them from responsibility for most crimes committed during the civil war. In statements made during last week's hostage crises, Sanginov implied that the four jailed UTO fighters were entitled to the amnesty, even though their alleged crime occurred just two months ago.
The incidents were only the latest examples of a problem that has been simmering for years. Despite four years of official peace, the government's control remains unsteady throughout most of Tajikistan. During the civil war and afterwards, Sanginov has maintained control of the Teppai-Samarkandi area just outside the capital. Further east in the mountains, former UTO commanders have even greater autonomy, and wield considerable control over the population in what are, in effect, their private fiefdoms.
Murder, kidnapping, and crime remain common in Tajikistan today despite government efforts to establish control over the whole of the country. The government is using last week's actions by Sanginov, Muakkalov, and Akhmatov as a justification for today's fighting. But it has been forced to act cautiously in order to avoid the appearance of cracking down on all former UTO supporters.
An uneasy peace prevails in Tajikistan, which the government is eager to preserve. The attack on Sanginov and Akhmatov's outposts is now being called an operation against "terrorist" and "anti-government" groups -- rather than "groups of the former Tajik opposition," as they were described last week.