Hundreds of Afghans flee to Tajikistan as Taleban advances

An Afghan security officer stands guard along a road in Kandahar on July 14, 2021. PHOTO: AFP

DUSHANBE, TAJIKISTAN (AFP) - Tajikistan said on Wednesday (July 14) that almost 350 refugees from Afghanistan had crossed into the Central Asian country, fleeing sweeping gains by Taleban fighters as foreign forces withdraw.

Border guards in the ex-Soviet country said those fleeing included 177 minors, and that two babies had died during the journey to the mountainous and impoverished country.

The Taleban's offensive has seen a stream of Afghans make their way across the border and earlier this month, more than 1,000 government troops fled to Tajikistan after the fighters seized a border crossing between the countries.

The militants in recent weeks have brought huge swathes of Afghanistan under their control as foreign troops withdraw, including the county's main Shir Khan Bandar border crossing with Tajikistan.

The border guards said the refugees who arrived over the last two days and included some 64 boys and 113 girls, had crossed from the Badakhshan province, brining with them herds of livestock.

Moscow, an important power broker in the region was closely watching the offensive, concerned about the security of countries in ex-Soviet Central Asia where it maintains military bases.

On Wednesday, about 1,000 troops at Russia's 201st military base in Tajikistan's capital Dushanbe took part in drills, Russian news agency Interfax reported.

The agency cited a statement by Russia's Central Military District as saying the exercises were meant for unit commanders and combat chiefs to ready for "combat operations in a dynamically changing situation".

'Deep concern'

Interfax reported that the exercises will run until the end of the week.

Russia's defence ministry said in a statement carried by the news agency that servicemen stationed at the military base had "repelled a massive missile strike by a simulated enemy" during the drills on Wednesday.

The 201st base is one of Russia's most important foreign bases and has the aim of helping maintain stability in Central Asia and providing support for Tajik troops.

Set up in 2005 and made up of three separate installations, the base houses about 5,500 troops.

In 2012, Tajikistan gave Russia an extension on the base through 2042 so it could help police its border with Afghanistan.

Tajikistan is a member of the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), which includes Russia.

Foreign ministers of SCO countries met in Dushanbe on Wednesday and issued a joint statement expressing their "deep concern over the growing tension in the northern provinces of Afghanistan".

"We urge all parties involved in the conflict in Afghanistan to refrain from using force and actions that could lead to destabilisation and unpredictable consequences in the areas of Afghanistan's borders with the SCO member states," the statement said.

Earlier on Wednesday, the Kremlin's envoy to Tajikistan, Zamir Kabulov, told Russian news agency RIA Novosti that Moscow was "closely monitoring" the situation at Afghanistan's borders with Central Asian countries.

But he added that the Taleban had confirmed and reconfirmed that it would not launch attacks on Afghanistan's neighbours.

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