200 cars stolen in Germany 'now owned by Tajik elite'

BERLIN (AFP) - About 200 cars stolen in Germany have been tracked down in Tajikistan, where most are now driven by family and friends of President Emomali Rakhmon, media and officials in Berlin said Thursday.

The case of the German-registered cars, including 93 BMWs located via their GPS systems, has caused friction between Germany and the Central Asian country, mass-circulation daily Bild reported.

The German foreign ministry did not confirm it had called in the Tajik ambassador over the case, but a spokeswoman said "there have been talks with the Tajik side on cooperation in fighting organised crime".

The Tajik embassy denied as "completely unfounded" the charge that stolen German cars had ended up with the president's family, saying the claim aimed "to damage the reputation of the nation and the head of state".

It said that in order to resolve the wider case of the stolen cars, "the Tajik side has already declared its willingness and all-round support toward the German embassy in Dushanbe and the (German) foreign ministry".

Berlin city justice department spokeswoman Lisa Jani said the stolen cars were located in Tajikistan by the "Westwind" task force of German and Lithuanian investigators, mostly using the vehicles' GPS tracking systems.

When Tajik authorities had failed to respond to requests to help in the investigation, Berlin's justice minister Thomas Heilmann had written to Germany's then-foreign minister Guido Westerwelle, she told AFP.

"Most of the vehicles are in the possession of people who have business or family ties with the family of the Tajik president," Heilmann wrote to the foreign minister at the time, said Ms Jani.

Tajikistan had to date not replied to the request for legal assistance or taken steps to return the cars, she added.

The Tajik embassy in its statement said that cars imported across its borders had already passed through several countries and changed owners but were all checked by customs and required to have legal papers.

It stressed that Tajikistan is a member of Interpol, respects its international commitments and treats any request for international legal assistance according to its national laws.

Tajikistan said it had "asked the German authorities to provide information from its database of stolen cars to Tajikistan authorities to prevent their illegal import into the territory of the Republic of Tajikistan. However, this has not happened."