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Russia Bids to Cap Ethnic Crises

Russian proposal to send peacekeepers to Central Asia sets bad precedent, critics say

TAJIKISTAN'S beleaguered president, Rakhmon Nabiyev, remains in charge of the Central Asian nation, despite the takeover of his presidential palace by opposition militants, Tajik officials here say.

"The legally elected president of Tajikistan is still working, although he has been driven out of his official residence," Rakhim Khasanov, press attache at the Tajik mission in Moscow, said yesterday.

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Mr. Khasanov would not disclose the president's whereabouts. The Interfax news agency said Mr. Nabiyev had taken refuge at a Russian-controlled Army base, but military officials in Tajikistan denied the report. Militants take hostages

Armed militants stormed the palace Monday night. They took several government ministers hostage, as well as the mayor of Dushanbe, the Tajik capital, saying they would be released if Nabiyev resigned. The president has refused to step down.

The opposition - a loose coalition dominated by Islamic groups, but also including reform-minded communists and movements espousing democratic ideals - has pressed for Nabiyev's removal for almost a year. Demonstrations in the spring nearly succeeded in ousting the president, but he was able to ease the pressure against him by bringing opponents into the government.

Since then, Nabiyev has maintained only a tenuous grip on power, and the country of 5 million, one of the poorest republics in the former Soviet Union, has begun a slow slide to civil war.

Armed factions supporting both the government and opposition have proliferated in the southern regions of the republic, smuggling weapons into the country over the increasingly porous border with Afghanistan.

There has been an upswing in the violence recently, highlighted by the Aug. 24 assassination of Tajikistan's chief prosecutor, Nurullo Khuvaidullayev. In an effort to restore order, as well as boost his own authority, Nabiyev met last week with the Commonwealth of Independent States armed forces chief, Marshall Yevgeny Shaposhnikov, and reached a preliminary agreement to deploy a commonwealth peacekeeping force in Tajikistan.

Government opponents had denounced the plan. They said the introduction of commonwealth forces could turn the Tajik situation into a second Afghanistan, possibly engulfing much of mostly Muslim Central Asia. The Soviet Army was entangled in the Afghan civil war for a decade, losing an estimated 15,000 killed in action before withdrawing in 1989.

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Khasanov, the Tajik official in Moscow, described the storming of Nabiyev's presidential palace as "an attempted coup to bring an Islamic regime to Tajikistan."

The timing of the takeover was designed to prevent the deployment of the commonwealth force in Tajikistan, Khasanov said. In addition, opponents hope to block the signing of a friendship and cooperation treaty between Russia and Tajikistan. A meeting between Nabiyev and Russian President Boris Yeltsin to sign the pact, scheduled for yesterday, was postponed, the Tass news agency reported.

Ending the deadlock in Dushanbe will be difficult without the deployment of commonwealth peacekeepers, Khasanov said. "The president does not have the force to regulate the situation," he said.

Meanwhile, tension continued to rise in other trouble-spots of the former Soviet Union, despite efforts to calm the crises.

In the Caucasian nation of Georgia, government leaders Tuesday accused the Russian military of attacking Georgian government troops fighting in the breakaway region of Abkhazia. Eduard Shevardnadze, leader of Georgia's provisional government, said several soldiers were killed in the Russian Army missile attack near Sukhumi, the Abkhazian capital. The Russian Defense Ministry denied its troops were involved in the incident.

Georgia is the scene of a civil war that pits independence-minded Abkhazians against the provisional government, which seeks to maintain the republic's territorial integrity.

The dispute between Georgia and Russia dampened the atmosphere before today's scheduled summit between Mr. Shevardnadze and Mr. Yeltsin. Some experts say a major escalation of the civil war is possible if Russian and Georgia are unable to agree on a peace formula at the meeting.

Russia is proposing to settle the situation by deploying its troops in Abkhazia, Tass quoted Russian Deputy Prime Minister Georgy Khizha as saying. But some observers say the introduction of an outside force in Abkhazia - as in Tajikistan - could set a dangerous precedent. Dangerous tactic

"In any part of the former Soviet Union it is extremely easy to provoke violence and ethnic disturbances," human rights activist Yelena Bonner said in an essay published by the Moscow Times. "Once the [peacekeeping] force is established, it will be the Army that determines the fate of unstable regions."

Also in the Caucasus, Armenia and Azerbaijan accused each other of launching artillery attacks in violation of a cease-fire agreement in the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh. The two sides agreed last week to halt hostilities on Tuesday. More than 2,000 people have been killed in the fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh, a territory within Azerbaijan's borders inhabited mainly by ethnic Armenians.

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