4 of 15 Aid Workers Released in Tajikistan

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Gunmen in Tajikistan kidnapped 15 people from an aid organization Friday, including an American and five Germans, but released four of them Saturday.

A German Embassy spokesman in the Central Asian nation’s capital, Dushanbe, said the American, Gary Hopf, was still being held along with two German men, whose names were not released, and the other abductees.

Three German women had been freed, including the head of the German group Agro Action’s mission in Tajikistan, Beathe Schoreit, who is married to Hopf. He is manager of the Agro Action office in Khodjand in northern Tajikistan.

On Friday, the gunmen seized the Agro Aid workers and several Tajik security men in the village of Darvaz, about 100 miles east of Dushanbe in the Tavil Dara region.

The gunmen demanded that the Tajik government release four suspects being held in connection with the assassination of Tajikistan’s deputy interior minister, Khabib Sanginov, in April.

But Vladimir Fedotov, a spokesman for the Agro Action office in Dushanbe, said late Saturday that it did not appear the prisoners’ lives were in danger.

“They are being kept in normal conditions, and they have not been hurt or threatened,” he said. “Our understanding is that they are being used by some armed group to resolve a conflict with the government.

“We hope that they will be released any time now.”

Tajik security officials said that the hostages were alive and that no violence had been used against them.

Tajik President Emamali Rakhmonov called an emergency meeting of top security officials to discuss the issue, and a team of negotiators flew into the Tavil Dara area Saturday to seek the release of the prisoners.

The Agro Action team was touring the region Friday when its vehicles were halted by gunmen and its members taken prisoner.

The kidnappers are from a paramilitary battalion in the Tajik Emergencies Ministry, but they were formerly part of the Tajik opposition, which was involved in a five-year civil war against the government until 1997.

Opposition forces signed a peace deal then in return for positions in the government. But Tajikistan, the poorest country in the former Soviet Union, remains unstable.

Members of the Islamic opposition were part of the negotiating team sent to the Tavil Dara region.

The kidnappers were led by Said Akhmatov, a commander in the Emergencies Ministry whose brother was one of several men arrested in connection with the deputy interior minister’s assassination.

Friday’s attack represented the second time in a week that a group of Tajik gunmen seized hostages. On both occasions, the kidnappers demanded the release of men from prison.

On Monday, an opposition figure, Rakhmon Sanginov, formerly a field commander in the civil war, took a group of policemen hostage and demanded the release of several prisoners. There has been no reliable accounting on the number of hostages his forces seized, but authorities have said it might be about 15. None of those hostages have been released.

In April, several police officers were kidnapped, and three were later found dead.

A French aid worker taken hostage in 1997 also was killed.