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After five years, the Uzbek government has finally agreed to help in demining its borders with Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. The land mines were planted to prevent militants from entering Uzbekistan from the east, but so far appear only to have killed scores of civilians. Though reports this week claim that the process of removing the mines has already begun, residents in some of the affected areas say otherwise.
Prague, 19 August 2004 (RFE/RL) -- For the past five years, many Uzbeks living along the country's borders with Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have been afraid to walk in the hills outside their homes. So this week's announcement by Uzbek Defense Ministry spokesman Kamiljon Jabarov was welcome.
"On 1 August, we started clearing mines in the areas of [the Uzbek enclaves of] Soh and Shahi Mardon. In those places, international terrorists [and] international bandits could get into Uzbekistan, and so we planted mines there. In those areas of the Uzbek-Kyrgyz border, they are currently removing mines," Jabarov said.
Uzbekistan laid the mines along its borders with Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in 1999 and 2000 to prevent militants from entering through the mountains. Since then, more than 100 people in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan have been killed by land mines. At least as many people have been injured. Material losses, especially of farm animals, has also been high.
It is unknown if any of the militants that triggered the planting of the mines were killed.
Shadabek Bakybayev, the deputy governor of Kyrgyzstan's southern Batken Province, welcomed the news of demining efforts.
"Three people have already been killed [in Batken Province], as you know. And there has been more than 6.5 million som ($154,000) in material damages," Bakybayev said.
A correspondent working for RFE/RL's Uzbek Service traveled to Soh yesterday and spoke to residents of the Uzbek enclave, who say they have seen no evidence of any mine clearing.
The UN Development Program, which is helping Tajikistan to clear mines along its borders with Uzbekistan and Afghanistan, welcomed the Uzbek government's announcement, but said it has no information that the process had begun along the Uzbek-Tajik border.
Uzbekistan's Defense Ministry stated in July that it was willing to clear the land mines, but demanded in return that the international community -- specifically the United Nations or the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) -- provide an alternative form of security for the country's eastern borders.
Marie-Carin von Gumppenberg, the OSCE's political officer in Tashkent, said individual governments and organizations have offered assistance in finding ways to secure Uzbekistan's borders that do not involve the use of land mines.
"A couple of embassies and foreign countries, as well as the OSCE and other international organizations, were approached to support Uzbekistan in stepping up their border security, but this is still in the process of negotiation," von Gumppenberg said.
Uzbek Defense Ministry spokesman Jabarov highlighted another problem. He said the exact location and number of these mines remains unknown:
"We can't clean up the border quickly. In one area, there is maybe 10 meters cleared, in another area maybe 200 meters [cleared]. How many there are is hard to count and, therefore, how many mines were put down over how much of an area, I cannot say," Jabarov said.
Many of the mines were dispersed from helicopters and airplanes. The mines were suppose to be placed only in Uzbek territory, but it became clear that many had landed on Kyrgyz and Tajik territory, where they have inflicted the bulk of their damage.
The mines have now been hidden by four winters of snow, rain, wind, and shifting soil, making the job of clearance that much more difficult.
(RFE/RL's Kyrgyz, Tajik, and Uzbek services contributed to this report.)