Tajik Crackdown on Rebels

Government forces have lost patience with criminal gangs operating near the capital Dushanbe

Tajik Crackdown on Rebels

Government forces have lost patience with criminal gangs operating near the capital Dushanbe

Tajik security forces last week conducted their largest military operation since the end of the civil war four years ago, in a bid to wipe out a heavily-armed guerrilla group in Dushanbe.

The former United Tajik Opposition, UTO, rebels, headquartered in an eastern district of the capital, have been implicated in all manner of criminal rackets ranging from assassinations to a recent wave of hostage-taking.

Operation Lightning targeted guerrilla groups led by two notorious opposition warlords, Mansur Muakkalov and Rakhmon Sanginov. The interior ministry claims the operation was a success with 36 guerrillas killed and 66 captured.

The assaults were carried out with the help of heavy artillery, armoured units and aircraft. Seven policemen were killed and some 20 wounded during the operation. However, Muakkalov and Sanginov both evaded capture.

Rationalising the need for military action, the authorities claimed the guerrillas had committed some 400 serious crimes, including 270 murders, over the last four years. The government decided to pull the plug on the rebels when four police officers were taken hostage on June 11.

Supporters of Sanginov also seized 15 aid workers a few days later, saying they would only be freed if four of their detained colleagues were handed over. All the hostages were unconditionally released.

Besides being involved in hostage-taking, drug and weapon smuggling, the ministry also points out that the same group was behind a number of serious crimes committed during the 1992-1997 civil war, including the assassinations of high-profile politicians and public figures.

Sanginov and Muakkalov have always flatly denied any involvement in criminal activity. A few days before the crackdown, the former held a press conference where he accused the government of persecuting, unlawfully arresting and attempting to frame members of his group.

"The law enforcement authorities persecute former opposition rebels who have long since returned to peaceful life or rejoined government security forces," claimed Sanginov, adding that he himself went into farming after the peace accord was signed between the government and UTO in June 1997. As if to prove his point, Sanginov has often invited journalists to his farm where he grows strawberries.

"These guerrillas claimed they were farmers," an analyst told IWPR. "Why would farmers need such a huge stockpile of weapons?" In raids on farm property, the police have reportedly seized a field gun, an anti-aircraft gun, 600 kilograms of explosives, 45 automatic weapons, 17 machine-guns, 2 mortars, 7 grenade launchers, 170 grenades and 20 landmines.

Analysts are sure that the government had no choice but to respond militarily. "It is common knowledge that this group committed a series of grave offences," one analyst told IWPR. "They controlled the Dushanbe-Kofarnikhon road making it impossible for anyone to use it safely."

He added that the group was to blame for the fact that all foreign missions and citizens based in the country had been warned to avoid the east of the country because of the fear of terrorist attacks. Eastern Tajikistan has acquired a reputation as a well-spring of crime and instability.

The analyst also noted that the guerrillas had taken police servicemen hostage a few days before President Emomali Rakhmonov's scheduled trip to China where he was due to attend a Shanghai Five summit.

Hostage-taking, especially of internationals, is damaging to Tajikistan's international image and this time the government decided enough was enough and agreed to crackdown on the renegades.

But the government had long been gearing up to deal with those ex-opposition fighters who had refused to join government forces. The authorities have been concerned that they posed a serious threat, ready to take up arms should problems arise between government and former UTO leaders.

The authorities have also been worried about possible links between Sanginov and Muakkalov's groups and The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, IMU. Allegedly, the two warlords offered to resist government troops if they decided to move against the IMU, which has twice launched incursions into Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan from Tajik territory.

So far, Tajik security forces have hailed their operation a success, but analysts are concerned about the two guerrilla masterminds still on the run. Analysts also fear that the government's use of military force may persuade former opposition fighters to consolidate forces against the government.

According to unofficial sources, the eastern Dushanbe faction has been joined by another armed group led by the notorious warlord Mullo Abdullo. Any alliance of these two hardline groups would be a matter of grave concern for the government.

The UN office in Dushanbe has registered their concern that Operation Lightning might upset the country's fragile peace and has called out for the government and former UTO leaders to join forces in any future crackdown on criminality.

There have been civilian casualties and some houses were destroyed or damaged during the air attacks, but so far the government has declined from disclosing any information.

The authorities claim that there was no other means of carrying out an assault on such mountainous terrain. "Conventional firearms cannot accomplish much in the mountains," a high-ranking Tajik military official was quoted as saying. "We had to act promptly and efficiently, therefore, we had no choice but to employ artillery and air force."

Vladimir Davlatov is a pseudonym of a journalist in Tajikistan

Support our journalists