Tajik rebels seize capital, seek to restore hard-liner Insurgents oppose 'Islamic' coalition

October 25, 1992|By Los Angeles Times

MOSCOW -- Insurgents seeking to restore Tajikistan' hard-line president to office seized power in Dunshabe yesterday, storming the presidential palace and declaring that they would not allow the Central Asian country to be ruled by Islamic fundamentalists.

Although heavy fighting continued into last night in the Tajik capital, the militants from the southern region of Kulyab appeared successful in their bid to reverse last month's ouster of longtime Communist leader Rakhman Nabiyev.

Kulyab leaders said that they intended to reinstate Mr. Nabiyev and the conservative ruling council that governed until May and to call Parliament into extraordinary session to "restore legality." But the countercoup did not appear to move the impoverished former Soviet republic of 5.2 million any closer to resolving months of civil strife during which thousands of people were believed to have been killed.

In Washington, the State Department said that it was closing the U.S. Embassy in Tajikistan because of the fighting and was recommending that U.S. citizens "depart the country as soon as possible."

Spokeswoman Julie Reside said that the embassy reported that 18 U.S. citizens known to be in the republic, including 11 U.S. government officials, were safe.

The U.S. ambassador in Dunshabe reported "heavy fighting around the hotel which houses the embassy, including tank and machine-gun fire," Ms. Reside said.

She added that Washington had seen reports that pro-Nabiyev forces gained control of important centers in Dunshabe but that the balance of power in the republic was not clear.

Observers in Moscow and Dunshabe now say that the conflict threatens to become as bloody and intractable as the war that devastated Afghanistan, Tajikistan's neighbor to the south. And leaders in neighboring Central Asian states worry aloud that Tajikistan's strife could spread to other parts of the largely Muslim region.

Kulyab leader Safarali Kenjayev told Tajik citizens in a broadcast address that the coalition of Islamic and reformist politicians who had replaced Mr. Nabiyev served as "a marionette government with Islamic fundamentalists behind it." Mr. Kenjayev and his allies promised a secular government with full constitutional rights.

"We do not lay [permanent] claim to power," he told Russia's Itar-Tass news agency. "We have come here to stop the bloodshed and restore the legality that was trampled upon by Islamic fundamentalists in May under pressure of the opposition."

But Tajikistan's unrest does not break down so easily into a dispute between religious and secular leaders. The anti-Nabiyev coalition has denied that it sought Iran-style Islamic rule, and the former republic is actually caught up in a complex battle of clans and regions as well as of parties. The unrest is fueled by shortages of land, jobs and food in what was the poorest of the old Soviet republics.

Military analysts say that Tajikistan's proximity to Afghanistan has also helped inflame the conflict as arms flood across the leaky border and experienced Afghan mujahedeen -- Muslim resistance fighters -- try to help and instruct their Islamic brethren.

According to sketchy reports from the region, yesterday's attack began about 6 a.m. when hundreds of Kulyab-faction fighters moved on Dushanbe and, encountering little resistance, took over the presidential palace, the Parliament building, the offices of the nation's religious leader, the airport, railway stations and communications.

By last night, residents reported that they could still hear shooting in the streets, and news agencies said that neighborhood battles continued.

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