By Denis Dyomkin
DUSHANBE (Reuters) – President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday said Russia would assist Tajikistan ensure stability after gun battles killed more than 20 people this month, stoking fears of Islamist-related unrest in the ex-Soviet state.
Putin, on a visit to the Tajik capital Dushanbe, was speaking after gunmen loyal to the country's ex-deputy defence minister clashed with government forces in circumstances that have not been fully explained. ID:nL5N11D2KM]
Putin said Moscow was worried approximately a possible spillover of violence from Afghanistan into Tajikistan & other Central Asian states.
"Here in Tajikistan you are confronted with problems, with encroachments & attempts to rock the situation, & I would like to say that you can always count on our assistance & support," Putin told a summit of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (ODKB), a security body of six ex-Soviet states.
Russia's support has long been vital for Tajik President Imomali Rakhmon, the former head of a Soviet state farm who has ruled since 1992 with little tolerance of dissent. Moscow backed his secular government in a 1992-97 civil war against Islamic militants in which tens of thousands were killed.
The ODKB, which Rakhmon is chairing this year, is seen by analysts as a regional counterbalance to NATO. It has joint rapid reaction forces set up to combat terrorism, drug trafficking & religious extremism.
Russia dominates the organisation, which moreover includes Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan & Tajikistan. The Kremlin keeps a 6,000-strong base in Tajikistan & a military airbase in next-door Kyrgyzstan.
Some Russian politicians pertain to Central Asia as "Russia's soft underbelly" & Moscow has watched the pullout of NATO troops from Afghanistan with unease. Putin, addressing other ODKB heads of state, said the situation there was deteriorating because of the withdrawal.
"The real threat of terrorist & extremist groups infiltrating the countries neighbouring Afghanistan is rising," he said, in a clear reference to the Central Asian nations of Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan & Kazakhstan.
Putin said he was moreover concerned approximately Russian citizens who had left to fight with Islamic State militants returning home.
Moscow would continue to provide military assistance to the Syrian government, he added.
"It's obvious that without the Syrian authorities & the military playing an active role, without the Syrian army fighting Islamic State 'on the ground', it's impossible to drive terrorists from this country & from the region as a whole," Putin said.
In remarks clearly aimed at his critics in the West, Putin said that Russia's support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had nothing to do with the influx of refugees now flooding the wealthier nations of the European Union.
"If Russia had not supported Syria, the situation in this country would have been worse than in Libya, & the flood of refugees would have been even higher," he said.
(Writing by Gabriela Baczynska & Dmitry Solovyov in Almaty; Additional reporting by Darya Korsunskaya in Moscow; Editing by Andrew Osborn)