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Confession Suggests New Trust In Tajik-Uzbek Relations

Colonel Mahmud Khudaiberdiev in a 1997 photo

Uzbekistan appears to have acknowledged that mutinous Tajik Colonel Mahmud Khudaiberdiev was once in Uzbekistan but is now no longer there.

At a meeting with journalists on July 25, an RFE/RL Tajik Service (Ozodi) correspondent asked the regional head of the Tajik Interior Ministry in Khatlon whether Tajik authorities had requested Khudaiberdiev’s arrest and extradition from Uzbekistan -- now that bilateral relations have improved after years of frostiness.

Solehzoda confirmed that Tajik authorities had made such a request but said they received information that Khudaiberdiev left Uzbekistan after the death of Uzbek President Islam Karimov.

It was an amazing statement considering that Uzbekistan has previously either denied or avoided comment on Khudaiberdiev's possible presence on Uzbek territory.

That Uzbek officials would now admit Khudaiberdiev was sheltering in Uzbekistan is a huge indication that Tashkent’s relations with Dushanbe are improving.

During Tajikistan’s 1992-97 civil war, Mahmud Khudaiberdiev, a former lieutenant in the Red Army, commanded the Tajik Army’s 1st Brigade, possibly the most capable unit among pro-government forces. Khudaiberdiev was fiercely opposed to Islamic fighters within the Tajik opposition, but he was also an opportunist. His unit fought with the Tajik Army’s 11th Brigade in September 1995 for control of the town of Tursunzade and the aluminum plant there, one of the few sources of revenue that Tajikistan had at the time, and Kurgan Tepe, the administrative center of the Khatlon region. A UN observer, Austrian Lieutenant Wolf Sponner, was killed when he investigated the clash between the two brigades, and as many as 250 Tajik civilians died during these battles.

Uzbekistan’s admission that it harbored one of Tajikistan’s most-wanted criminals is stunning, but it also points to a new spirit of cooperation in Tajik-Uzbek ties that allows for such acknowledgement.

The beleaguered Tajik government talked about disciplining Khudaiberdiev. But instead it was Khudaiberdiev who mobilized his unit, seized Kurgan Tepe, and marched on Dushanbe in late January 1996, demanding that President Emomali Rahmon dismiss several officials. Rahmon appeared to have little choice and sacked a deputy prime minister (Mahmadsaid Ubaidulloev), the presidential chief of staff (Izatullo Khayaev), and the head of the Khatlon region (Abduljalil Salimov), then shortly afterward dismissed the prime minister (Jamshed Karimov).

The Tajik government also granted Khudaiberdiev an amnesty, and he pulled his troops back from the capital.

Nominally, Khudaiberdiev supported the Tajik government. But the cost of this arguably tepid loyalty was said to have been informally ceding parts of southwestern Tajikistan to Khudaiberdiev and his cronies. After talks with the government, he eventually withdrew his troops from Tursunzade in March 1996.

Khudaiberdiev returned in January 1997, claiming an armed group from Tursunzade had raided the 1st Brigade’s headquarters on December 29, 1996, killing an officer and stealing weapons. Khudaiberdiev ignored a presidential order to withdraw and prevented the presidential guard from entering Tursunzade. Powerless to do anything to force Khudaiberdiev from Tursunzade, the government rescinded the order for Khudaiberdiev to vacate Tursunzade, instead tasking him with disarming criminal groups in the city and restoring order there.

It was no secret that Khudaiberdiev opposed the peace deal that the two Tajik sides agreed to on June 27, 1997, as the accord gave the Islamic wing of the opposition places in government.

On August 9, 1997, Khudaiberdiev and former Interior Minister Yakub Salimov (who was by that time the chief of the Customs Service) moved their forces on Dushanbe. They were repelled after several days of fighting, and Khudaiberdiev and most of his unit vanished.

On November 4, 1998, Khudaiberdiev returned, attacking cities in Tajikistan in northern Tajikistan. He was again beaten back after four days of fighting, and again disappeared.

It was seemingly clear that Khudaiberdiev and what remained of the 1st Brigade had come from Uzbekistan and retreated there when they lost the battle. Uzbek officials, of course, vehemently denied any connection to Khudaiberdiev; but President Rahmon was sure and told Tajikistan’s parliament on November 12, 1998, that Karimov aided the rebels because the “Uzbek leadership wants to take the whole of Tajikistan under its control.”

The November 1998 foray is thought to have been the last time Khudaiberdiev was ever seen in Tajikistan. From time to time in subsequent years members of his unit were caught in Tajikistan and imprisoned, but the colonel himself had disappeared again.

Tajik authorities were certain he was somewhere in Uzbekistan, but relations between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan had soured significantly after the Tajik peace agreement was signed. Then-Uzbek President Islam Karimov was also against the Islamic wing of the Tajik opposition receiving places in government, and Uzbek authorities insisted Khudaiberdiev was not in Uzbekistan and they said they had no idea where he could be.

There were rumors. Some said Khudaiberdiev went to help ethnic Uzbek Afghan commander Abdul Rashid Dostum reclaim Mazar-e Sharif from the Taliban in late 2001. Khudaiberdiev was rumored to be part of an elite presidential guard for the Uzbek president. Some even claimed Khudaiberdiev was sent to help restore order in the eastern Uzbek city of Andijon in May 2005 in the bloodiest violence in Uzbekistan since its 1991 independence.

But there were never any conspicuous reports of Khudaiberdiev being anywhere but Uzbekistan.

As recently as late November 2013, Tajik military helicopters flew over part of Uzbekistan’s Jizzakh Province in Uzbekistan looking for something. The Tajik government first denied the incident, then said the helicopters had accidentally strayed from their course; but eyewitnesses in Jizzakh Province said the helicopters were over Uzbek territory for an hour and seemed interested in the village of Kyzyl-Mazar.

There was speculation that Tajik security forces received information suggesting that Khudaiberdiev had a training facility in the area.

And as it turns out, Khudaiberdiev might really have been there. Khatlon Interior Ministry chief Iskandar Solehzoda appears to have suggested that Khudaiberdiev was in Uzbekistan for almost 20 years. But he also indicated the colonel has once again vanished: “There is no concrete information about [Khudaiberdiev’s] current location. Some information suggests he is in Turkey.”

Uzbekistan’s admission that it harbored one of Tajikistan’s most-wanted criminals is stunning, but it also points to a new spirit of cooperation in Tajik-Uzbek ties that allows for such acknowledgement.

It’s true the confession comes along with comments that Khudaiberdiev has once again disappeared, but at least Tashkent appears to have demonstrated a willingness to clear the air with Tajikistan on an issue that was a major problem in relations between the neighbors.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.

About This Blog

Qishloq Ovozi is a blog by RFE/RL Central Asia specialist Bruce Pannier that aims to look at the events that are shaping Central Asia and its respective countries, connect the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change.​

The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.


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