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Deterring separatism


RUSSIA'S bloody war in Chechnya is heightening neighbors' concerns that Islamic separatism could lead to stepped-up guerrilla activity along China's borders as well. Led by Beijing and Moscow, five Asian nations are now working to stem such a threat.

When security experts met last week in Tajikistan, it was revealed that Russia has posted a tank division of some 7,000 soldiers in that former Soviet republic. Its duty is to assist in guarding the border of militant-controlled Afghanistan.

Russia's main concern is Afghanistan's Taliban fundamentalist rulers, their aid to Chechen rebels and willingness to harbor Osama bin Laden, the terrorist. In recent weeks, Moscow has upgraded its military ties with Iran, which also has a long, porous border with Afghanistan.

China's is worried about Xinjiang and is maintaining considerable troop presence. Recently, five Islamic separatists were executed there for fanning violence among the Uighur population.

Also participating in the alliance are Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, each of which is trying to cope with the threat of Islamic separatism. Tajikistan is believed to be a thoroughfare for Uighur militants moving to and from Afghanistan and Pakistan. (A sixth nation, Turkmenistan, attended as an observer. )

"The five countries have all realized that in Central Asia the three forces of national separatism, international terrorism and religious extremism run rampant," a Chinese foreign ministry official explained. "They constitute a realistic threat to regional security..."

In his public statements, President Vladimir Putin, who was a KGB officer in East Germany, has often made it plain that he regards Russia primarily as a European nation. But with its long border and huge economic interests in Asia, Moscow is increasingly concerned about its security there. The Soviet Union may be gone, but the Russian empire remains.

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