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U.S. Sees Tajikistan as Staging Ground

TIMES STAFF WRITER

U.S. military teams plan to move into Tajikistan today to explore using three air bases in the Central Asian nation to house troops and launch raids into Afghanistan, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said Saturday.

Under an agreement still being negotiated, the U.S. would base Special Forces and infantry at three Tajik bases and in return would guarantee “tens of millions of dollars” in aid to the impoverished former Soviet republic that borders Afghanistan to the south.

“We have assessment teams that are coming in to work with the [Tajik] government,” Rumsfeld said. “They will talk, and then judgments will be made about what’s appropriate.”

The bases, Kulob and Qurghonteppa in the south of the country and Khujand in the north, could accommodate U.S. helicopters, gunships and ground troops, a senior defense official said.

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In other developments Saturday, snow, freezing rain and fog were playing an increasingly important role in the military campaign in Afghanistan, as the Pentagon confirmed that it had lost an unmanned Predator surveillance aircraft, first reported missing Friday, because of “severe weather.” The confirmation came a day after defense officials said a Special Forces helicopter had crashed in inclement weather.

The U.S. denied reports by Afghanistan’s Taliban regime that both aircraft had been shot down.

There were no plans to try to recover the remnants of the remote-controlled Predator, the first unmanned aircraft lost in Afghanistan. However, defense officials said F-14 Tomcats had been sent in to destroy the helicopter. Four crew members were injured when it went down, but none of the injuries were life-threatening and the crew members were receiving medical care, officials said.

U.S. jets continued to fire on Taliban strongholds in major Afghan battlefronts on the 28th day of an effort that has relied heavily on aerial attacks. Two waves of U.S. planes flew over the Afghan capital, Kabul, bombing east of the city, as Special Forces on the ground in the north helped direct American aircraft to Taliban targets.

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Meanwhile, Osama bin Laden released a videotape angrily denouncing the United Nations and the U.S.-led attacks and declaring that a religious war is being waged against Muslims. Appearing in traditional headdress and military garb as he has in past videos, Bin Laden said Muslims who support the United States are betraying their faith.

In a statement, the White House said the videotape was “more propaganda that shows how isolated Bin Laden is from the rest of the world.”

Use of the Tajik air bases could allow the U.S. to increase the number of American troops already in the region north of Afghanistan. Military forces have been based in neighboring Uzbekistan for weeks, but while Tajikistan was quick to support the U.S. war on terrorism, the question of basing troops on its soil has caused considerable unease among its leaders and in Moscow.

Tajikistan maintains a coalition government with Islamic fundamentalists. And Russia still has about 20,000 soldiers in the former republic.

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But with the Bush administration ramping up the military campaign against the Taliban and the Al Qaeda terrorist network, the Pentagon has been exerting growing pressure on Tajikistan to allow use of the air bases.

Under a security agreement with Russia, the Russian soldiers operate the Tajikistan-owned bases. The soldiers help keep peace among Tajik factions and combat the export to the country of heroin from Afghanistan. In private conversations with their U.S. counterparts, Kremlin officials have expressed discomfort with letting U.S. and Russian troops operate on the same soil, the senior defense official said.

Those concerns appeared to have been alleviated Saturday when Rumsfeld met in Moscow with Russian Defense Minister Sergei B. Ivanov and President Vladimir V. Putin on a variety of issues related to the war in Afghanistan and arms control.

It was left to Rumsfeld to travel to Tajikistan to try to convince the country’s leaders of the need to let the U.S. use the bases. His trip was the first to the country by a senior American official since 1992, when Secretary of State James A. Baker III visited the newly independent nation and other former Soviet republics.

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“We are hopeful that we will be able to deepen not only the personal contacts but also actually begin to do some things directly out of Tajikistan,” said a senior defense official in an interview just before the visit.

Emerging from his meeting with Tajik President Emamali Rakhmonov, Rumsfeld was upbeat.

“They were very responsive,” he told reporters traveling with him. “Their view of the Taliban and Al Qaeda is identical to ours.”

Speaking at the presidential palace in Dushanbe, Rakhmonov--a former Communist official who was installed in 1992 amid a five-year civil war and then elected two years later--said he welcomed the arrival of the U.S. military assessment teams of four to five people but was uncertain whether the move would lead to a significant U.S. troop presence in his country.

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“First, I would like the experts to check out if the airfield can be used, and then decide if it is worth talking about,” Rakhmonov said.

The fragile compromise underpinning Rakhmonov’s government guarantees Islamic fundamentalists 20% of government positions. Rakhmonov also is under pressure to deal with a stunning poverty problem. Tajikistan’s unemployment rate is 54%, and four out of five Tajiks live in poverty, according to the United Nations.

Since Sept. 11, thousands of Afghan refugees have sought to enter Tajikistan. They have been placed in a refugee camp on the border but denied further access to the country.

Rumsfeld flew to Uzbekistan late Saturday night and is scheduled to meet today with Uzbek President Islam Karimov and Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov. This is Rumsfeld’s second trip in less than a month to the country, where elements of the Army’s 10th Mountain Division have been based for weeks to support Special Forces operating inside Taliban-controlled territory in Afghanistan.

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Uzbekistan has 85 miles of border with Afghanistan and, like Tajikistan, is seen as a “critical player, both because of its location and its relationship to Afghanistan,” the senior defense official said.

Rumsfeld was scheduled to leave Uzbekistan today and fly to Pakistan and then India, where he plans to shore up support for the military campaign. At one point, his plane, a C-17 cargo craft, will fly over Afghan airspace. Since leaving Moscow, Rumsfeld has been traveling for security reasons aboard the cargo plane instead of the C-37 passenger jet he usually flies on.

In the cargo plane, Rumsfeld has shared a spartan space in the belly of the giant aircraft with his entourage. But he has seemed to relish the experience, tearing open sealed packets of military-issue Meals Ready-to-Eat with one hand and flipping through briefing books with the other, joking with reporters and doing calisthenics to stay limber.

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Schrader is covering the Defense secretary’s trip. Times staff writer Elizabeth Shogren in Washington contributed to this report.


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