Guerrillas Capture UN, Tajik Officials

ALMATY, Kazakhstan -- Tajik guerrillas upset peace talks Friday by taking 23 hostages, including seven United Nations officials.

A gang of fighters who call themselves "Rizvon Sadirov's Group," named after a famous former rebel leader also known as Rambo who is based in Afghanistan, detained the 23 in the foothills of the Pamir mountains upon their return from a meeting of opposition leaders in southern Tajikistan.

Reporters and observers on the ground said the UN officials had accompanied four Tajik government officials and four leaders of the opposition, who form a commission that is key to efforts to bring peace to Tajikistan after four years of civil war.

The incident is bound to upset ongoing peace talks in Moscow between Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov and Sayid Abdullo Nuri, an exiled opposition leader. For the first time, both sides were willing to discuss a coalition government, but Nuri's signature would mean little as he has lost control over various other warlords in recent months.

"Somebody doesn't want things to go smoothly with the negotiations," said one aid worker in Dushanbe. "It's getting pretty confusing now."

In a separate incident, an opposition warlord who boycotted the talks took over the Darvaz gold mine last week and detained a Brit and a South African who were working there, along with their two Tajik translators. He has made no demands but also holds Sadirov's brother.

The Rizvon Sadirov group demands his release, as well as free entry for Sadirov and his fighters from Afghanistan into Tajikistan. They threatened to kill the hostages and detonate bombs in Dushanbe if their demand was not met.

UN officials took their cars off the streets and kept a low profile for fear of attacks last night. Reporters noted frequent shooting in the streets, a sign that government troops are getting nervous as well.

Sadirov, nicknamed Rambo and infamous for his cruelty, was one of the leading rebel fighters when the civil war started four years ago, and he later fought alongside Afghan warlord Ahmed Shah Masood. He came out in support of the Tajik government recently and visited Dushanbe, but his political agenda is muddled at best.

Government troops had already put the peace talks in doubt by holding two mock executions of UN military observers in recent days, in apparent attempt to persuade the monitors to leave the country.

Government troops have suffered heavy losses in recent months, and the aid worker in Dushanbe said some government officials have blamed UNMOT, the UN military observer group, for preventing the army from cracking down on the rebels. "That's bullshit, but some people in the army appear to believe it," he said.

Sadirov has reportedly been close to the chief of the Presidential Guards, but the aid worker said there was no indication that Sadirov had been acting on his behalf. "There is as yet no proof Sadirov is even involved," he said, adding, "Everybody is playing their own game in Tajikistan."