2006, October 31
The Middle East Times, AFP
News Article
By Nick Coleman

Tajik leader, Aga Khan open Afghanistan bridge

Tajik President Emomali Rakhmonov and the Aga Khan, the billionaire spiritual leader of the world's Ismaili Shia Muslims, inaugurated a bridge into Afghanistan Tuesday 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 robes on both the Afghan and Tajik sides of the River Pyandzh at Ishkashim, located 2,700 meters (8,860 feet) above sea level near Afghanistan's Wakhan corridor.

In a set-piece event attended by Afghan and Tajik officials, Rakhmonov hailed growing bilateral ties that he said would help develop northern Afghanistan and open the region to trade with neighboring powers China, India and Pakistan.

"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. "All the tasks we have carried out over the last 15 years and for the Afghan people are aimed a peace."

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, it is a meeting place ... Communities on each side of the border will know each other better and be able to help each other grow and prosper," he said.

Munshi Abdul Najid, governor of Afghanistan's Badakhshan region, said that he also hoped for increased trade with China and Central Asia, and expressed hopes for building a road from Tajikistan to northeastern Afghanistan. Such a project "would be very important for both sides," 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 of Shia Islam.

For Rakhmonov, the day's event was a chance to show off his nation-building efforts and his commitment to the 200,000-strong Pamiri population in Gorno Badakhshan ahead of next Monday's election, independent analyst Rustam Haidarov said.

The Pamiris, who speak a cluster of languages that differ sharply from Tajik, were subject to ethnic cleansing during a 1991-97 civil war that tore apart this ex-Soviet republic.

Increasingly, Rakhmonov has cast himself as a mediator in efforts to rebuild war-ravaged Afghanistan and to build new transport links that could benefit both Afghanistan and China.

He has been helped by the Western-born Aga Khan, whose hereditary dynasty has its roots in India and ultimately Persia and who is engaged in development projects in many parts of Central Asia.

The Aga Khan is revered by the Pamiri population, who credit him for providing life-saving aid during the civil war.

"He helped us in very difficult times," said Kushol, a math teacher stood in the crowd that had come to greet the spiritual leader. "He pulled us out of a deep hole. We were closed in on all sides with no food ... He was the only person who helped."

Rakhmonov, who was first elected in 1994, is seen as certain to win a seven-year term at next week's elections as the main opposition parties are boycotting the process and observers view the election mechanism as unfair.

Nonetheless, said, Haidarov, "he has to show concern for that region [Gorno Badakhshan]."


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