Russian Troops Help Defend Tajik Capital
MOSCOW (AP) _ Russian troops and tanks helped pro-Muslim volunteers defended the capital of Tajikistan from attack by Communist-backed forces Sunday, Russian media reported.
Russia’s 201st Motorized Rifle Division, based in Dushanbe, rushed armor to the city’s outskirts to rebuff the attack from the Communist stronghold of Gissar, about 15 miles to the west, the Interfax news agency said.
Because of the fighting and poor telephone lines, no casualty reports or details of the battle were immediately available.
A spokesman for the 3,000-man Russian division, Col. Anatoly Ivlev, told Tajik television that the soldiers would continue to protect the city of 800,000.
Tajikistan’s civil war pits Muslim and democratic groups against an alliance of Kulyab tribesmen, ethnic Uzbeks and old-style Communists led by former parliament speaker Safarali Kendzhayev.
Fighting has wracked the former Soviet Central Asian republic of 5.1 million for months, costing hundreds of lives and creating a flood of refugees.
A pro-Communist alliance regained power last month, when it toppled acting President Akbarshah Iskandarov. The democratic and pro-Islamic forces have held onto Dushanbe, but their opponents control much of the surrounding countryside.
Russian commanders have claimed neutrality in the conflict, but have been dragged into the fighting since they promised to protect Dushanbe’s civilian population after an October attack by pro-Communists left about 100 dead.
Before Sunday’s attack, both sides exchanged artillery fire on Dushanbe’s outskirts. The city’s defenders, mainly pro-Muslim youths, formed volunteer units and set up roadblocks in expectation of the attack, ITAR-Tass reported.
The International Committee of the Red Cross said last week an estimated 150,000 refugees were along the border with Afghanistan, including more than 60,000 without shelter in one mountain camp.
At least 100 of the refugees have died from exposure to sub-freezing night temperatures and illness, Red Cross spokesman Francois Perez said in Geneva. He said food was scare, medicine unavailable, and sanitary conditions poor.
The Red Cross planned to start this week an airlift of blankets, soap and plastic sheets used to make temporary shelters. Medicine and food would follow, Perez said.