Install

Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Kalashnikov-Toting Russians Bewilder Kabul

ReutersA Russian guard patrolling the base Tuesday that was set up overnight on a sand-strewn plain in central Kabul by about 100 personnel from the Emergency Situations Ministry.
KABUL, Afghanistan -- Uniformed Russians with Kalashnikov assault rifles have occupied a patch of wasteland in the heart of Kabul and they said Tuesday they were building a field hospital, or perhaps an embassy.

About 100 men from the Emergency Situations Ministry -- which is not part of the military -- set up base after dark Monday, providing a source of speculation and even some consternation among throngs of spectators the following day.

"Are they soldiers?" asked one man. "Are they bad people? What are they doing here?"

Russians with guns have a checkered past in Afghanistan.

The Soviet invasion from 1979 to 1989 left the country awash with war widows, land mines and the hulks of burned-out Soviet tanks and armored personnel carriers.

The men from the Emergency Situations Ministry -- some armed with possibly the newest and shiniest Kalashnikovs in all Afghanistan -- were not too forthcoming.

"We are building a field hospital," said one, dressed in a blue anorak emblazoned with "MChS -- Rossii" in large white letters. "And a temporary embassy."

Having spent a freezing night sleeping by camp fires, the Russians parked their 12 huge KamAZ trucks in a circle and strung up green camouflage netting from them while the men with rifles patrolled the perimeter.

The Emergency Situations Ministry usually deals with helping the victims of natural disasters such as floods.

The United Nations spokesman in Kabul said Russia had not warned the UN of their arrival, but the governing Northern Alliance's Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah said they had come with his blessing.

"Of course they didn't parachute there," Abdullah told reporters.

He said they would set up a hospital and a temporary base while they prepared to open a proper embassy nearby.

Russia has for years provided the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance with weapons. Following the collapse of the Taliban government, Moscow pledged to help relieve humanitarian problems in Afghanistan.

But if that was the point of Tuesday's exercise, no senior officer was free to explain their mission. And as a location for a clinic based in tents -- a stone's throw from two proper brick and mortar hospitals -- it seemed a quixotic choice.

A Russian delegation has been visiting Kabul and said one of its priorities was to survey the wreckage of the old Soviet Embassy, a huge compound amid the destruction of west Kabul.

The area was turned into a moonscape of pulverized buildings by civil war in the early 1990s, and the gunshot-riddled old compound now provides shelter to thousands of people made homeless by two decades of war.

Though why Russian diplomats would want to live in tents behind green camouflage -- which highlights rather than disguises things against the pale yellow dust of Kabul -- also remained a mystery.

Abdullah said residents of Kabul would have no problem with the Russian presence.

"No one would single out a country for what happened in the past. The Russian Federation is not the Soviet Union and the people of Afghanistan understand that," he said.

But Fayaz, an unemployed man watching the Russians, remained skeptical.

"The Russians have come here and I don't understand what they are doing," he said. "If they are really setting up an embassy, then I suppose that is fine."