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Afghan Refugees Left in Limbo

Uzbekistan's delicate balancing act over relations with the warring sides in Afghanistan leaves refugees out in the cold
By IWPR Central Asia

Uzbekistan has turned down a request to send aid to an estimated 200,000 refugees sheltering in Northern Alliance-controlled areas of Afghanistan, claiming it was not equipped to provide the assistance required.


The request for help came from the Afghan foreign affairs minister Abdullah Abdullah during a visit to Tashkent in mid-March. " Many of the refugees are sick and are near to death.They require urgent humanitarian assistance, medication, food, shelter, " he said.


"We want to draw Uzbekistan's attention to the humanitarian situation in Afghanistan and seek ways of assisting the Afghan people. People need urgent help and if it is not provided a new tragedy will take place in Afghanistan very soon."


According to Abdullah, the Taleban prevents UN humanitarian aid from reaching refugees in Northern Alliance held areas. He claims refugees in Taleban territory "live in virtual concentration camps. The Taleban is afraid of people rising up against them and therefore exercises strict control over everyone".


An Uzbek ministry of foreign affairs statement said Uzbekistan does not provide humanitarian aid to refugees on the Pianj river, which separates Afghanistan and Tajikistan, because the country lacks the "technical capability to deliver assistance".


A ministry spokesman said the government regretted the situation but was not considering a change of policy.


The refugees it seems have fallen foul of Uzbekistan's delicate political balancing act. The government is eager to maintain relations with both sides in the Afghan conflict.


The Uzbek government did not, for example, join the chorus of criticism surrounding the Taleban's decision to demolish ancient Buddhist monuments. Tashkent declined to comment on the action.


Uzbek analyst Alexander Khamagaev believes the country's policy on Afghan refugees stems from its fear of being sucked into the conflict. He said Tashkent does not want to be seen to be taking sides in the Afghan conflict.


There is also concern across the region that humanitarian assistance may fall into the hands of armed Afghan groups, which could in turn export drugs and extremist ideas back into neighbouring states.


According to press reports, Abdullah tried to reassure Tashkent that the Northern Alliance would do its best to prevent armed Islamic groups threatening Uzbek security.


But as the Alliance only controls a relatively small area along the Tajik frontier, it's unlikley that Ahmad Shah Masoud's forces are capable of neutralising Afghan-based elements of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, IMU.


IMU, which wants to create an Islamic state in Uzbekistan, first came to the fore following its incursion into neighbouring Kyrgyzstan in 1999. It gained further notoriety with similar raids into southern Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan last summer.


IMU leaders fled from Uzbekistan to Tajikistan in the early 1990s and joined the Islamic Tajik opposition during the civil war in that country. When peace was reached in Tajikistan in 1997, they were forced to head for Afghanistan where, according to Uzbek military sources, they enjoy Taleban support.


The Uzbek government has contacted the Taleban in an effort to limit the activities of IMU. But unofficial sources claim the talks proved to be fruitless.


The government offered to supply northern areas of Afghanistan with energy and ease obstacles to cross-border trade on condition the Taleban liquidate IMU bases on its territory and hand over the movement's leaders to the Uzbek authorities.


But the Taleban claims the IMU are their guests and have also demanded that Uzbekistan officially recognise the Kabul regime as the government of Afghanistan - a step Tashkent cannot take without alienating the international community and its neighbours.


Galima Bukharbaeva is IWPR' regional director in Uzbekistan


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