By Bruce Pannier
Nearly three years after the civil war officially ended in the Central Asian nation of Tajikistan, the government is finally beginning to deal with one the most serious problems left behind by five years of conflict -- the criminal armed gangs that plague the cities. RFE/RL correspondent Bruce Pannier reports.
Prague, 24 March 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The Tajik government began a crackdown on illegal guns last weekend (March 18) in an attempt to bring some safety to its lawless streets. "Operation Order" aims to rid the nation of its illegal paramilitary bands and all the weapons they still possess.
Over the past six months, Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov has repeatedly underscored the importance of fighting criminal behavior. But the seriousness of Tajikistan's problem only hit home -- literally -- in the days before the country's February's parliamentary elections. In several acts of terrorism, city buses were blown up, bombs were planted outside buildings, and a car belonging to the mayor of the capital, Dushanbe, was demolished.
Part of the problem lies in identifying who is responsible. Many men who are not soldiers still walk around wearing military uniforms. Anyone of any importance needs bodyguards, and they are almost always armed. Cars glide through urban streets with dark-tinted windows and no license plates, leaving the occupants anonymous. In fact, most violent-crime reports begin with the words: "Men in a car with no license plates and dark windows drove up and...."
At the height of the civil war, there were hundreds of thousands of weapons in Tajikistan, which has a population of 6 million. Guns, grenades, rockets and other weapons were often given to those who made vague promises of allegiance to one of the various war factions. Many small bands or individuals took the arms and carved out independent territories for themselves, private fiefdoms. And in recent years, the narcotics trade out of neighboring Afghanistan has added to the problem by creating numerous armed drug-trafficking groups.
The civil war lasted from 1992 to 1997, and the reasons for fighting were multiple. There were conflicting ideologies, religious and ethnic differences, regional hatreds, and simply old vendettas that had been controlled but not forgotten during Soviet times.
Interior Ministry spokesman Kudoinazar Asozoda told RFE/RL's Tajik Service last Saturday (March 18) that the government will no longer allow people to carry unauthorized weapons:
"People who show up in public places in uniform or with guns will now be arrested if they are not there to carry out their duties. Uniforms and guns will be taken from them and never given back."
Violence was expected during the early stages of operation -- and it has duly occurred. This week, there were two shoot-outs in Dushanbe. Both began when police tried to stop cars with dark-tinted windows. When the cars' occupants started firing on the policemen, one person was killed and 13 more wounded.
Still, downtown Dushanbe is relatively safe compared with the outskirts. Police have set up roadblocks around the city and are checking everyone driving a car with tinted windows or carrying a gun. More than 250 dark-windowed cars were seized in the first three days of the operation -- and shooting on the outskirts of Dushanbe has become common.
The violence accompanying the crime crackdown has led some people to wonder if it would not have been safer to leave things as they were. But the government says it is determined to continue the operation until the threat of violence is substantially reduced.
Operation Order comes at a time when Tajikistan must take more responsibility for internal security. The United Nations has had a special mission in Tajikistan, known as UNMOT, since 1994. UNMOT helped stop the civil war and has helped to preserve the peace -- in the process, losing several of its observers to gunmen.
But UNMOT's mandate runs out May 15 and, unlike past deadlines, this time there will be no extension. From then on, Tajikistan is on its own.
(Salimjon Aioubov of the Tajik Service contributed to this report.)
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