ARMED men halt a crowded bus in the center of Dushanbe, capital of the civil-war-torn Central Asian nation of Tajikistan.
Russians, Uzbeks, and others are told to remain on the bus, while Tajiks are ordered out for a document check. Those suspected of harboring antigovernment sentiments are hustled off to detention centers. Some have not been heard from since.
Such tales are told these days by refugees who escaped the Tajik violence and made their way to Moscow, many arriving with little more than horror stories.
"A `Great Terror' is now going on in Dushanbe," says Oleg Panfilov, the former Dushanbe correspondent for the Nezavisimaya Gazeta daily, who fled in December. "What's going in Tajikistan in some ways resembles the `ethnic cleansing' in Bosnia."
Human rights organizations such as Helsinki Watch have accused forces backing Tajikistan's new pro-communist government of relentless persecution of political opponents since they ousted an Islamic-democratic coalition from power in December.
In a letter to Tajik parliament Speaker Imamali Rakhmonov made public last week, Helsinki Watch called on Tajik leaders to stop widespread rights abuses, including summary executions.
Tajik officials vehemently deny any ongoing effort to systematically eliminate opposition. "In the first days ... there were such cases, but not many," Tajik Security Police Chief Sayeedamir Zukhurov said of reports of summary killings. "These cases have been stopped."
Even if the executions have ceased, evidence gathered by Helsinki Watch and eyewitness accounts suggest they were far more widespread than Mr. Zukhurov claimed. The Helsinki Watch letter listed 20 cases in which people were killed in unclear circumstances. Russian TV last week broadcast footage of a grave in southern Tajikistan containing the bodies of 16 men.
Talk abounds in Dushanbe about mass graves in the city's outskirts. "With my own eyes, I saw six men who had been brutally murdered and left in an empty swimming pool in an outlying region of Dushanbe," says Salim Ayubzod, editor of the Tajik weekly Charogy Ruz.
The civil war, which has claimed thousands of lives, has been fought over different political philosophies and along regional and clan-based lines. Those targeted, Helsinki Watch says, include people from regions and clans that supported the Islamic-democratic coalition. Also marked for persecution are democratically oriented journalists and free-market businessmen, according to Mr. Ayubzod, who currently lives in Moscow.
Helsinki Watch and others blame armed bands from the pro-government Popular Front movement for doing most of the murdering. But they add that the Popular Front irregulars in many cases received help from government security forces.
The civil war has been a bitter, back-and-forth struggle. In September Islamic-democratic forces secured at gunpoint the resignation of neo-communist President Rakhmon Nabiyev. An interim government, however, was unable to stop the war from intensifying in southern regions.
Pro-communist forces later recaptured Dushanbe, and many backers of the Islamic-democratic coalition fled. About 50,000 found refuge in Afghanistan.
The pro-communist forces unleashed an "anti-rebel" offensive in mid-January that wiped out pockets of resistance around Dushanbe. At the same time, opponents allege, they conducted "cleansing" operations in the capital.
"They don't want to leave one person who could challenge them for power in a year, or in five years," Ayubzod says.
Prime Minister Abdulamalik Abdulajanov charged at a Moscow news conference that 10 refugee camps near the Afghan city of Mazar-i-Sharif are being used to provide military training to primarily Muslim Tajik refugees. A radical Afghan mujahideen faction is arming and supporting refugees, he said.
Mr. Panfilov says several thousand Islamic refugees are likely to launch an offensive from Afghanistan in the spring. "The opposition knows that if they don't fight, they'll be exterminated," Panfilov says. "A process has started in which the Islamic opposition has forsaken democratic methods. Now it's purely an Islamic movement, although not fundamentalist in character."
Faced with the prospect of an offensive, Tajik leaders at a summit Friday in Belarus got a pledge from other Commonwealth of Independent States members - Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Armenia - to send up to 3,000 troops to reinforce the 1,200-mile border with Afghanistan.
"This border is a sieve through which weapons and narcotics travel," political analyst D. Makarov wrote in the Argumenty i Fakty weekly. "As soon as these weapons and narcotics achieve a critical mass among Russian, Ukrainian, and other nationalist groups, then the situation in other regions like Kaluga [in Russia], Gomel [in Belarus], and Mariupol [in Ukraine] won't differ much from that in Dushanbe."