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Bringing Peace to Tajikistan's Mountain Fiefdoms

Hopes rise for return of vital UN observers after suspects confess to July killings.

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Only occasional gunshots break the eerie silence that envelops this capital at night. Residents abandon the tree-lined streets long before dark, and the few drivers to venture out race through red lights in the city center.

Tajikistan's violent civil war has been over for more than a year, thanks to the fragile peace accord brokered by the United Nations. But the current state of lawlessness grips the country in a stranglehold.

Seven years after independence, the smallest and poorest country to emerge from Soviet Central Asia finds itself in a difficult process of national reconciliation.

Tajikistan's twisting borders, like those of other Central Asian republics drawn up after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, were intentionally designed to weaken the region's ethnic groups. The lack of history as a nation-state was one reason it plunged into war.

On Sunday, the Tajik Interior Ministry announced that three suspects had confessed to the killings last July of four UN observers on patrol east of Dushanbe.

The UN recalled all nonessential foreign staff from Tajikistan following the ambush. Officials say full operations will not resume until the investigation is complete and all those charged are brought to justice.

The three suspects, said to be former members of the United Tajik Opposition, were taken into custody by the UTO and handed over to police. A fourth suspect remains at large.

"We know of renegade groups in and around Dushanbe with a record of hostage-taking," says UN special envoy Jan Kubis.

"Both Tajik sides want us to resume [our operations], and I am telling them we can't go there because we can't read the security situation," he says.

UN monitoring is essential to the success of the peace process. Analysts say the government and opposition alike realize that without a neutral international presence, Tajikistan would once again descend into violence. Killings of local officials occur almost weekly.

In the mountains of Tajikistan, which blanket more than 90 percent of the country, allegiances are based on localities and clans, many affiliated with neither the government nor the opposition.

One international aid worker in Dushanbe has compiled a map of the country with 17 fiefdoms drawn on it.

The government itself has no less than four different armies that heed only their respective ministries.

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