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Islam-Wary Kremlin Keeps Watch on Tajikistan's Woes

TAJIKISTAN is a poor, volatile, and strategic former Soviet state, a potent mix that threatens to become Russia's post-Afghanistan disaster in Central Asia.

Recent clashes between Islamic rebels and Russian-led ''peacekeepers'' threaten the Moscow-backed Tajik government. Russia sees the republic as a bulwark against the spread of radical Islam.

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Talks between Tajik officials and the rebels, mediated by the United Nations, are set to begin April 19 in Moscow.

Some 25,000 Russian troops are in Tajikstan, a country of 5 million. They make up the bulk of the troops stationed there to keep a lid on the country's bloody conflict.

The Kremlin, which cracked down on rebels in the Russian region of Chechnya with brutal intensity, has given no signs it will back off from involvement in Tajikistan.

President Boris Yeltsin recently said he would give Tajikistan extra military assistance if needed. Moscow wants to maintain the status quo in the only nation in the former Soviet empire that speaks Farsi, the language of Islamist Iran.

A civil war in 1992 claimed thousands of lives, prompting the exodus of an estimated 100,000 people. Since then, border clashes have brought a trickle of casualties. But the death of more than 40 border guards in April -- despite a cease-fire signed last year -- brought the call for talks.

Last week, the leaders of Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan repeated Mr. Yeltsin's call to put more troops from the Commonwealth of Independent States on the border, justifying the expense by warning that the violence could spill into their countries.

''The development of events demands urgent measures to prevent an escalation of the fighting on the Tajik-Afghan border,'' Uzbek leader Islam Karimov said at the conclusion of a three-nation summit in Kazakhstan.

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Tajik authorities, mainly former Communists, have clamped down on the pro-Islamic and liberal opposition since the war. The government has banned all political parties, newspapers, and broadcasts that conflict with the official view.

Human rights groups called last November's presidential elections a sham as they were boycotted by the opposition, whose candidates were forbidden from taking part.

But Moscow, which sees itself as Tajikistan's traditional protector against Islam, has nonetheless supplied arms and deployed a significant chunk of its 201st Motorized Rifle Division along the Tajik-Afghan border.

The talks, scheduled to take place in Moscow, are a prelude for a fourth round of official negotiations between the warring sides.

''If they don't decide to have negotiations, there will be war,'' warns Oleg Panfilov, a spokesman for the Glasnost Defense Foundation who specializes in Tajikistan and has emerged as an outspoken critic of the Tajik government.

Mr. Panfilov says the opposition will suggest that Russia sign another cease-fire agreement April 19 to end the recent fighting. But he adds that lasting peace is impossible unless the Tajik authorities change their policy of excluding the opposition from all political life.

In Afghanistan, government sources said that Russia bombed a village and border region in retaliation against the Islamic rebels April 13, killing more than 125 civilians. But the Kremlin has vigorously denied such charges, which could not be independently confirmed.

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