2006, October 31
AFP - Yahoo News
News Article
by Nick Coleman

Tajik leader makes election pitch at Afghan bridge opening with Aga Khan

Tajik President Emomali Rakhmonov and the Aga Khan, billionaire spiritual leader of the world's Ismaili Shia Muslims, inaugurated a bridge into Afghanistan in a show of strength by the Tajik leader ahead of November 6 elections.

Thousands of the Aga Khan's followers turned out in traditional dress on both the Afghan and Tajik sides of the River Pyandzh in isolated Ishkashim, 2,700 meters (8,860 feet) above sea level opposite northeastern Afghanistan.

Tajikistan has a key role in stabilising war-torn Afghanistan and in opening up Central Asia for trade with powers such as China, India and Pakistan, Rakhmonov said at the opening of the single-lane bridge that stretches 90 metres across the river and was paid for by the Aga Khan Development Network.

"In the near future, we have many plans for building new infrastructure that will have big benefits for our people and the Afghan people," the Tajik president said in a confident performance in which he at one point clasped his hands above his head in a sign of victory.

"All the tasks we have carried out over the last 15 years and for the Afghan people are aimed at peace," he said, in a reminder of the 1992-97 civil war that tore apart this ex-Soviet nation.

Afghan Vice President Abdul Karim Khalili thanked Tajikistan for its efforts to support the post-Taliban leadership in Kabul and said the bridge was part of broader plans to improve his country's transport links.

"We have one culture. This bridge I hope and know will in future be a new means to developing markets between our people and your people," he said.

The bridge was the third to be inaugurated in the sensitive Gorno Badakhshan region of Tajikistan, where the ethnic Pamiri population are among the world's 15 million followers of the Ismaili sect, led by the Western-educated Aga Khan, long a liberal voice in the Muslim world.

For Rakhmonov, the event was a chance to show commitment to the 200,000-strong Pamiris ahead of next Monday's election, at which he is expected to be awarded a new seven-year term, amid criticism that the vote will be neither free nor fair.

Children dressed in traditional woven caps and clutching synthetic flowers lined the streets for Friday's ceremony -- partly an orchestrated show of force by Rakhmonov but also a reflection of genuine gratitude for life-saving aid provided by the Aga Khan in the war years.

The Pamiris were among the victims of ethnic cleansing that occurred at the time, a subject that remains largely taboo, according to critics.

"He pulled us out of a deep hole," said Kushol, a maths teacher, watching in the crowd.

"We were shut in on all sides with no food... He was the only person who helped," she said.

One local journalist, Shahodat Saibhazarova, said the Aga Khan had been crucial in getting people to put their grievances to one side in a conflict that claimed up to 150,000 lives nationwide according to the government.

But she was not optimistic about Tajikistan or the Pamiris, who speak a cluster of languages sharply different from Tajik and live, many of them, in poverty.

In the capital Dushanbe "people had lists and went round houses taking away Pamiris. They were shot outside the city and left, or were thrown in the river," she recalled.

The Aga Khan, whose hereditary dynasty has its roots in India and ultimately Persia, "called on everyone to forgive each other and people listened because he had authority," she said.

"If Rakhmonov is president for another seven years I don't think anything will change," Saibhazarova said.

The Aga Khan said that with the new bridge, "products from China now have a fast road transit route to Afghanistan."

"The Ishkashim bridge is not only a transit point... Communities on each side of the border will know each other better and be able to help each other grow and prosper," he said.

One speaker to take the stage, a female veteran of World War II, was more concerned to praise Rakhmonov.

"They see you (Rakhmonov) on television in every corner of the world. We are proud that this is our president, that a Tajik mother gave birth to this child," she said.


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