KURGAN-TYUBE, TAJIKISTAN — AS he pushed a small cart in which his young daughter sat atop bundles of family possessions, Ahmad Yulgashov's face showed the strain as he arrived at a militia checkpoint on the outskirts of this city in southern Tajikistan.
Like many here, Mr. Yulgashov and his family are fleeing the fierce clashes that have engulfed much of the southern areas of this Central Asian republic. The fighting is the hottest point of a civil war that many fear could spread beyond Tajikistan's borders.
"It's no longer safe. We don't want to get caught up in the fighting and so we are going to Dushanbe [the Tajik capital]," Yulgashov said.
The fighting over the last two weeks is estimated to have caused at least 1,500 deaths and created about 100,000 refugees, officials say. The devastation in this city, a focal point of the fighting, is extensive. On one street near the city center an entire row of homes was gutted - their roofs burned off, walls blown out, and windows smashed. The dwellings that were not destroyed had all been looted, residents said.
"They had to use a bulldozer to push all the bodies into mass graves," said Masti Nabiyev, an elderly resident who survived the attacks. Officials say the violence in Kurgan-Tyube has subsided in recent days, but add that the situation remains volatile. Fighting continues in the countryside around the city.
The situation in Dushanbe is not much more stable a week after the ouster of the former Communist boss, President Rakhman Nabiyev, by a coalition of democratic and Islamic forces. With government influence waning in the provinces, attempts by parliament speaker Akbarsho Iskandarov to negotiate a cease-fire have produced few results so far.
The conflict in Tajikistan is essentially political, but it also has strong ties to Islam and traditional regional rivalries. The competing forces have been battling to determine the republic's future following independence, gained during the breakup of the former Soviet Union.
"It's a lot more complicated than politics. There are clans with strong loyalties and strong hatreds," says a diplomat stationed in Dushanbe.
On one side, according to political observers, is the traditional power elite - the remnants of the Communist Party. Since the pacification of Tajikistan by the Bolsheviks in the late 1920s and early 1930s, the republic's party leaders have usually come from the northern region of Leninabad, the most economically developed part of the country and an area where Islamic belief is weak.
The Leninabad forces are generally supported by the large ethnic Uzbek minority in Tajikistan, as well as by the largely pro-Communist clans of the southern Kulyab region. They are fighting to preserve as much as possible the totalitarian system imposed by the Communists.
The opposition is a broad coalition of democratic and Islamic forces who say they would transform Tajikistan into a democratic republic. The opposition's power bases are in Gharm, a city in mountainous eastern Tajikstan, and in the southern Kurgan-Tyube region. These areas are perhaps the poorest in the republic and are also where the Communist system made the fewest inroads. Belief in Islam is strong.
The influence of radical Islamic factions in the opposition has been rising in recent months, according to diplomatic sources here. In the past 12 months, the opposition has launched two waves of mass demonstrations that succeeded in weakening the conservative regime. Though outnumbered, Mr. Nabiyev was able to remain in power until a third wave of unrest last week resulted in his ouster.
Nabiyev's removal creates the best chance in recent years for a political agreement, says Tahir Abujabar, the leader of Rastokhez, a moderate group in the opposition coalition. "The president was a destabilizing factor. Now that he is gone, maybe realistic steps can be taken to end the fighting."
But even though the prospects for a political settlement are improving, the government is still struggling to assert its authority, especially in Kurgan-Tyube. Parliament speaker Iskanderov, who has no party affiliation, has issued an appeal for calm and tried to start cease-fire negotiations, but few seem to follow his lead.
The situation is further complicated, according to diplomats and other sources, by the active support for the opposition from Islamic fundamentalists in Afghanistan and Iran. Afghanistan, which has a large Tajik minority, has provided weapons and training to the opposition in an effort to increase the influence of Islam in Tajikistan. But Afghan and Iranian officials have denied involvement in the civil war.
The Tajik-Afghan border, which is controlled by Russian troops, has become porous in recent months. Russia and other former Soviet republics in Central Asia have expressed fears that the troubles in Tajikistan could spread to other areas.
Border detachments have been recently reinforced, but there are still not enough troops to stop arms smuggling, according to Lt. Col. Romas Jankauskas, the deputy commander of the border forces.
"There's been so much brutality that it will be almost impossible to stop the fighting," a diplomat says. "The only chance to regulate the situation is to close the Tajik-Afghan border."