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Afghanistan: Central Asian States Open Airspace To U.S. Humanitarian Flights

Representatives of countries from the Commonwealth of Independent States, or CIS, held an emergency security meeting in the Tajik capital, Dushanbe, to assess the situation in Central Asia after the U.S. and Britain launched military strikes against Afghanistan. Participants agreed to open their airspace to humanitarian flights to Afghanistan but kept silent about the possible use of their airbases for military purposes.

Dushanbe, 9 October 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Member states of the CIS Collective Security Council and five other former Soviet republics have agreed to open their airspace to humanitarian flights to Afghanistan.

The decision was made yesterday at an emergency meeting of Security Council secretaries of the six former Soviet republics that make up the Collective Security Council -- Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan -- and was announced today at a press conference in the Tajik capital, Dushanbe.

Representatives of Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova, Uzbekistan, and Ukraine also attended the meeting as observers. Turkmenistan, a Central Asian country that borders Afghanistan to the northwest, did not attend.

Russia's Security Council Secretary Vladimir Rushailo said the session convened to assess the situation in Central Asia after the U.S. decided to start military operations against Afghanistan's ruling Taliban regime.

On 7 October, U.S. and British warships and aircraft launched the first of a series of air raids and cruise-missile attacks on targets in Kabul and other major Afghan cities in retaliation for 11 September terrorist bombings in New York and Washington.

An antiterrorism coalition of states, led by U.S. President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, accuse Saudi-born millionaire Osama bin Laden, who is living in Afghanistan under the protection of the Taliban, of masterminding the attacks.

Before the U.S.-led antiterrorist operation began, humanitarian groups had been warning of impending starvation inside Afghanistan brought on by political unrest, drought, and the threat of U.S. military action. The U.S. and the international community have pledged hundreds of millions of dollars in humanitarian aid in anticipation of up to 1.5 million Afghans being displaced. Russia has also pledged to deliver humanitarian relief to Afghanistan.

Speaking to journalists in Dushanbe today, Rushailo said other CIS countries will also contribute to upcoming relief operations by offering their airspace to humanitarian aid flights to Afghanistan:

"In connection with the antiterrorist acts conducted by the U.S. and its closest allies in Afghanistan, members states of the CIS and the [Collective Security Council] have expressed their readiness to open their airspace to planes carrying humanitarian cargo meant for those areas where military operations are being conducted."

Rushailo also said that, if necessary, CIS countries would agree to take part in rescue operations in and around Afghanistan.

In their efforts to garner international support against bin Laden and the Taliban, the U.S. and its allies have approached a number of Central Asian countries. None of them has so far officially agreed to participate in the U.S.-led military coalition against Afghanistan.

Government officials in Uzbekistan continue to deny media reports that U.S. troops and planes have taken positions on the Khanabad airfield, near the city of Karshi. After talks with U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on 5 October, Uzbek President Islam Karimov said Uzbekistan's air bases would only be used for humanitarian purposes.

Asked whether U.S. troops were stationed in his country, Uzbekistan's Security Council secretary, Rustam Isaev, today avoided the question, referring to Karimov's latest statement.

Tajikistan, which shares a 1,400-kilometer border with Afghanistan, has also persistently denied that it would let U.S. warplanes use its airfields in attacks on Afghanistan.

Speaking yesterday in Dushanbe after talks with Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov, Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's special envoy to Central Asia, Muneo Suzuki, said he believes Tajikistan would eventually let U.S. air forces use its airbases. The Tajik Foreign Ministry later denied this statement.

Tajikistan's participation in the U.S.-led antiterrorist military operation would certainly not be possible without the consent of Russia, which sees this country as its main outpost in Central Asia and maintains at least 20,000 troops there.

Whether Russia would agree to let U.S. troops use Tajikistan's territory remains unclear. But Rushailo said today that, in addition to offering their airspace to relief flights, the CIS states could consider other forms of cooperation with the U.S. and its allies:

"Depending on the level of understanding we can reach with them and depending on the quality of our relations with them, closer cooperation with members of the [ongoing] antiterrorist operation are possible."

Rushailo did not elaborate. Yet his statement could be understood as a sign that Russia -- which has already said that it will increase its military support to the Northern Alliance and send humanitarian aid to Afghanistan -- could eventually agree to let Tajikistan and other Collective Security Council members open their airbases to U.S. planes.

It is unclear under which conditions such an agreement could be reached. Rushailo has met twice with President Rakhmonov over the past two days, but no information on the content of the talks has been made available.

Speaking to reporters today, Tajikistan's Security Council Secretary Amirkul Azimov left open the possibility of his country participating in the U.S.-led military operations:

"For the time being, Tajikistan will not participate in the military operations. It supports the actions conducted against terrorism. Our president has repeatedly said that -- and it was announced yesterday -- that we will provide aid, grant air corridors, and, if necessary, for example, airports for humanitarian aid to the Afghan nation."

Talking to reporters today in Dushanbe, a spokesman for the Russian Defense Ministry said two U.S. army officers had arrived in Tajikistan. He said the two officers were there to examine the possibility of using the country's airfields for rescue operations.