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Security on Tajik-Afghan Border Tightened

Both Tajik and Russian border forces admitted last week that Islamic militants could be attempting to re-enter Tajikistan.
By Nargis Zakirova

Tajik president Imomali Rakhmonov insisted last week that Central Asian terrorists left in Afghanistan are not infiltrating the Tajik border. But the head of state's assurance that the southern frontiers of the CIS are secure was quickly disputed by Russian border troops and Kyrgyz politicians, and even by some members Rakhmonov's own government.


The president has been anxious to assure the international community that Tajikistan will not become a "gateway to Central Asia" for local remnants of the al-Qaeda movement. During the US-led operation in Afghanistan, members of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, IMU, found themselves fighting for the Taleban and the suspected terror network.


Tajikistan became a base for the Uzbek Islamists in 1992, when the civil war started. Dissatisfied with Islam Karimov's regime, rebels left Uzbekistan for Tajikistan, where they fought on the side of the United Tajik Opposition, OTO. IMU leader Juma Namangani even became a deputy to the rebels' leader Mirzo Ziyoev, and took command of the headquarters of its armed units.


The Tajik peace agreement of June 1997 offered all OTO soldiers a role within the Tajik law-enforcement agencies, but the Uzbek Islamists continued to resist, settling in the east of the country, from where they launched attacks on Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan in 1999-2000. It was during these incursions that they declared themselves as Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and set their aim as the creation of a Muslim state in the region.


The IMU units were finally deported from Tajik territory in 2001, when they crossed into Afghanistan. It is these forces that are thought to be attempting to cross the border.


Major-general Sergei Zhilkin, head of the Russian border group headquarters in Tajikistan, told IWPR that a meeting between his men and the Afghan border commission for Afghani Badakhshan, had revealed that several Central Asian al-Qaeda members had been seen about 100 km from the Tajik-Afghan frontier.


Rebels were now seeking to return to bases left over in from the attacks of 1999-2000, most probably in Tavildara, eastern Tajikistan, he said, "Many of them still have families there and they may now cross the border using false documents."


Rachmonov's speech, delivered on July 9 in the town of Isfara, where the states of Tajikstan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan meet, was intended to reassure his neighbours that the units will not succeed in their bid to re-enter the area. On July 10, however, Kyrgyz defence minister Esen Topoev, told a press conference in Bishkek that his special services had evidence that over 350 members of al-Qaeda and the IMU were massing on the Tajik-Afghan frontier. From there they planned to cross into Central Asia, he said, adding that he "did not rule" out possible political tension in the southern Kyrgyzstan as a result.


Amirkul Azimov, secretary of the Tajikistan security council, swiftly rebutted the statement, claiming that Dushanbe's special services had noticed only two or three armed people, who had made no attempt to cross the border. "Tajikistan's neighbours, particularly Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, have no cause for alarm," he said.


He was then undermined by Nuralisho Nazarov, deputy chairman of the Committee for the Protection of the Republic of Tajik Borders, who told national television that border forces "could not rule out" the possibility of a breach by the IMU rebels and Tajik al-Qaeda terrorists from Afghanistan.


"This possibility cannot be ruled out in border regions of the Tajik city of Badakhshan, which is next to the Afghan province of the same name," he said, adding that security along this 1000 km section of the frontier would be increased.


If Tajik al-Qaeda members do succeed in infiltrating, they could pose a long-term security threat, according to a highly-placed member of the Russian military on the Tajik border. "These rebels will go under cover and wait until the international community relaxes its fight against extremism and terrorism," he told IWPR. "Then they will begin subversive activities in Central Asia, which could develop into an open armed conflict." Foreign soldiers stationed in Central Asia could then become targets, he said.


To combat this threat, over 1,000 additional Russian soldiers have been transferred to the Tajik-Afghan border since last year, 38 new sentry posts have been set up and two frontier posts built.


Some commentators believe that border infiltration is connected with narcotics, not terrorism. Drug runners have mounted armed attacks on the frontier 15 times in the last month alone, according to Russian border forces in Tajikistan. On July 14, they confiscated 215 kg of heroin, the largest haul ever recovered in the ten years they have patrolled the Tajik-Afghan frontier.


Despite disagreement from all sides, President Rakhmonov is sticking to his guns. "There is no danger that rebels from Afghanistan will cross into the territory of Tajikistan," he told a conference of the United Tajikistan Movement, adding, "These rumours are being spread in certain circles to tarnish the image of Tajikistan on the international political arena and to scare away foreign investors."


Nargis Zakirova is a correspondent with Vecherny Dushanbe and Lidia Isamova is IWPR director in Tajikistan


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