Towards a Safer Tajikistan?

The recent killing of a notorious warlord in Dushanbe has not quelled security fears in the rest of the country.

Towards a Safer Tajikistan?

The recent killing of a notorious warlord in Dushanbe has not quelled security fears in the rest of the country.

Tajik government troops are boasting they have seen off the largest armed guerrilla group in the country, which had terrorised the capital for years.

Yet while the government may tout its victory, in a recent special operation, as a prelude to a safer, sounder Tajikistan, analysts remain sceptical, pointing to difficult security problems issues which bedevil its eastern regions.

The Interior Ministry hardly disguised its joy at the news that Rakhmon Sanginov, the warlord, renegade and bane of the security services, had been killed August 10 after fighting erupted between government forces and guerrillas a few miles north-east of the Tajik capital. He leaders demise followed closely on the deaths of his closest associates, Mansur Muakalov and Safar Tagoev.

The government holds the guerrillas responsible for hundreds of major crimes, including 270 murders, committed over the past few years. The bandits' power base in the north-eastern suburb of Dushanbe was turf no law enforcement officer dared to tread. Besides their tally of crimes, the band had a reputation for terrorising local communities, taking hostages and exploiting slave labour.

"Now that the bandits' warlords have been done away with, the government is in a position to make Tajikistan a much safer place," said Amirkul Azimov, secretary of the Security Council. "It is highly unlikely that guerrilla groups as numerous and powerful will re-emerge."

Despite the end of the country's five year civil war in 1997, Tajikistan has been plagued by instability, thwarting efforts to consolidate its fledgling democracy. War-lords still effectively control various regions, and violent incidents by warlords have targeting international aid workers. As a result, foreign investors have opted to stay away from the country. The US State Department advises Americans against visiting.

The damage caused to Tajikistan's image convinced President Emomali Rakhmonov that the security issue needed serious attention. As such, according to a source close to the government, Rakhmonov had given law-enforcement troops a deadline of September 9 to annihilate the Sanginov guerrilla threat.

The date marks the country's tenth anniversary of its independence. Several heads of state will be invited to the celebrations, making safety a top priority.

Tajik troops took around six weeks to complete the operation which reportedly resulted in the deaths of 50 guerrillas and the capture of another 70. A further 50 individuals suspected of collaborating with the group, have been detained.

"An insignificant percentage of Sanginov's group may still be at large, but they can't do anything without their leader. In all likelihood, they'll simply disband," said Azimov, the Security Council secretary.

The government reported significantly lower loses, with nine dead and 20 casualties in a operation involving the use of both jets and artillery fire. "Regrettably, there have been some civilian casualties," said Izotullo Rakhimov, chief investigator with the interior ministry.

Despite the apparent success of the operation, analysts are sceptical about any blanket declaration that security will prevail. "Tajikistan has always been 'kind of' safe", said a local OSCE official. "We're certainly better off having lost this criminal group, but the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan is still active,"

A military expert agrees. "Tajikistan will never be safe with Uzbek militants out there," he told IWPR.

Despite condemnation from Bishkek and Tashkent for failing to control rebel groups in Tajikistan, the government denies that IMU attacks on Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan in 1999 and 2000 were launched from Tajik territory. But this expert laughed off a recent government announcement that the IMU was "not a Tajik problem".

With the militants facing few restrictions in their movements over Central Asia, there was no reason they would not use Tajikistan as a staging base, he said. Even if the government is correct in refuting recent reports of IMU groups on its territory, there is no guarantee that, given the country's porous borders, they might not reappear at any time.

The Kyrgyz-Tajik border area has been viewed as a security threat for a number of years, not least because the area has been controlled by various chieftains who had previously fought under the United Tajik Opposition during the civil war.

Although the peace deal incorporated these groups into governmental and military structures, they are headed by warlords who, on occasion, make their presence chillingly obvious. Incidents have included the kidnap, mid-June, of 15 international humanitarian aid workers and four Tajik security service officials, and the murder last month of a Swiss citizen which sent shock waves throughout the country's expatriate community. For these reasons the eastern regions of Tajikistan are very much out-of-bounds for most foreign workers.

There are also fears about the activities of the Khizb-ut-Takhrir Muslim group which actively recruits in the north of the country. According to various sources the group, numbering around 5,000 to 7,000 members, is bidding to form a separatist Islamic state in the region and is thus a serious potential threat.

Back in the capital, Dushanbe, there may be fewer armed men on the streets. But every month there is news of high-profile murders - as the president himself is all too aware. Last month his closest advisor on international affairs, Karim Yuldashev, was assassinated.

Vladimir Davlatov is pseudonym of a journalist in Tajikistan.

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