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Russia Vows to Give Support To Rebel Forces in Afghanistan

By Susan B. Glasser

President Vladimir Putin pledged Monday night to step up Russia’s military support for opposition forces inside Afghanistan and gave tacit approval for the United States to use former Soviet air bases in Central Asia as part of any retaliatory strikes.

In a televised speech pronouncing Russia “ready to contribute to the fight against terror,” Putin vowed to send more weapons and badly needed equipment to Afghanistan’s Northern Alliance, which has been battling the ruling Taliban regime that is suspected of harboring Osama bin Laden.

After private consultations with advisers and President Bush, Putin spelled out a relatively restricted role for Russia. He offered use of Russian airspace for humanitarian flights, expressed readiness to take part in “search and rescue operations” resulting from any Afghan conflict, and vowed to share intelligence about international terrorist groups and their locations.

At the same time, he made clear Russia remains wary of military involvement in a new Afghanistan battle little more than a decade after the Soviet Union’s defeat there. “Other, deeper forms of cooperation” are possible, he said, without elaborating on what additional steps Russia would consider.

Monday night’s speech, however, clarified Russia’s position on an unprecedented U.S. military presence in former Soviet Central Asia. While Putin did not explicitly endorse the use of Central Asia as a staging area for an assault on Afghanistan, he said his position was shared by Central Asian leaders and that they “do not rule out” use of their air bases.

Despite much debate, “it was finally agreed that Russia is not going to confront the leaders of Central Asian states” if they choose to cooperate with the United States, said Grigory Yavlinsky, a parliamentary leader who attended a closed-door briefing by Putin before the speech.