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Kyrgyzstan: Uzbekistan's Raid To Free Hostages Highlights Complex Problem

  • Bruce Pannier

Uzbek war planes carried out a raid on southern Kyrgyzstan on Sunday in response to a request by the Kyrgyz government. The raids were targeted at a band of armed Uzbeks who had crossed the Kyrgyz border from Tajikistan and who had taken an entire Kyrgyz village hostage. Our correspondent looks at the roots of this complicated story, a story likely to play out for some time to come.

Prague, 19 August 1999 (RFE/RL) -- In Tashkent Uzbek Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Komilov told journalists (Aug. 17) what many in the region already knew:

"On Sunday, August 15, the air force of the Uzbek Defense Ministry under orders and by prior agreement with the power ministries of Kyrgyzstan carried out several attacks."

Komilov was speaking about four Uzbek war planes that dropped eight bombs on Kyrgyzstan on Sunday. The raid was targeted at 21 armed Uzbek guerrillas who took the southern Kyrgyz village of Zardaly hostage earlier this month. Kyrgyz officials sent to negotiate were also taken prisoner before the crisis ended with the release of all hostages last Friday.

But if the hostage taking and the follow-up bombing against the perpetrators suggests now the crisis in Kyrgyzstan is over, there are strong signs that the region still faces serious problems from much larger group of Uzbeks who have taken refuge in Tajikistan and of which the gunmen are just a small sample.

The larger group numbers some 1,500 women, men and children who began moving into eastern Tajikistan in late 1997 as they fled what they believe is persecution by the Uzbek government. The migration started after a crackdown by Tashkent in eastern Uzbekistan in the wake of the murder of four policemen, which Uzbek authorities blamed on members of a fundamentalist Islamic sect -- the Wahhabis.

The killing of the policemen sparked a wave of arrests, some reportedly with little cause or evidence. The first Uzbek refugees to flee to Tajikistan likely were members of the Wahhabi sect or relatives of members.

A larger wave of refugees began arriving in eastern Tajikistan's Garm and Jirgatal regions after the February 16 bombings in the Uzbek capital, Tashkent. Members of extremist Islamic groups were again blamed for the bombings, which killed 16 people. The Uzbek government considered the bombings to be an attempt on the life of the country's president.

The first sign that the armed refugees could spell trouble for Uzbekistan's neighbors came in May, when shooting broke among the migrants near the village of Tavil-Dara in eastern Tajikistan. The shootout began after some of the Uzbeks decided to accept an offer of amnesty which Uzbek President Islam Karimov made shortly after the Tashkent bombings. As the small group turned to leave, other refugees opposed to the amnesty attacked it. The shooting killed 18 people.

Until the shootout, the Tajik government appeared to be unaware of the Uzbek refugee's presence. For one thing, about 25 percent of Tajikistan's population is composed of ethnic Uzbeks, so the presence of the refugees seems not to have aroused much curiosity. For another, Tajikistan is used to large groups of armed militants. The country is still recovering from a five-year civil war that officially ended in June 1997. Disarming of militants has usually been put off until an outbreak of violence requires the government to do so.

Following the shootout, the Tajik and Uzbek governments held talks to decide what to do with the refugees and agreed in late July to send them to Uzbekistan. The refugees were told this, but no action was immediately taken. On August 5, for reasons which still are not clear, 21 of the armed Uzbeks suddenly crossed over to Kyrgyzstan and took the residents of the village of Zardaly hostage. They were able to do so undetected because of the exceedingly rough terrain in the area. The northern parts of Tajikistan's Jirgatal and Garm regions which border Kyrgyzstan are broken up by high red hills with small, sheer valleys which run well into eastern Uzbekistan, affording hundreds, if not thousands, of ways to enter and exit all three countries in the area.

When Kyrgyz officials came to negotiate with the Uzbeks, some were immediately taken hostage. Those who weren't kidnapped said the guerrillas were supporters of the Uzbek Islamic extremist Juma Namangani. Namangani is suspected by the Uzbek government of plotting the 1997 murders of the four Uzbek policemen and the February Tashkent bombings.

The guerrillas demanded a large sum of money before the crisis ended last Friday as suddenly as it began with the Uzbeks freeing their hostages after receiving $50,000.

Kyrgyzstan, once its hostages were released, appears to have decided to turn the whole problem over to Uzbekistan by permitting Tashkent to send bombers against the gunmen. On Sunday night, four Uzbek bombers entered Kyrgyz air space. They struck targets in Kyrgyzstan, though it is unclear where or with what effect. By all accounts, the guerrillas are still in Zardaly.

A spokesman for Kyrgyzstan's Security Ministry, Talant Razzakov, (Aug. 17) praised the Uzbek air strikes which also hit sites associated with the gunmen's base in Tajikistan.

"That the Uzbek side bombed there is true. The guerrillas have a military base in Tajikistan they use to continue resistance against the Uzbek government. Citizens of Uzbekistan gather there to carry out a struggle against the current government of Uzbekistan. The fighters who came here (southern Kyrgyzstan) came from that base. Of course, the Uzbeks took action against them. This bombing was the correct thing to do."

The Uzbek planes appear to have hit targets in northern Tajikistan in the Garm and Jirgatal regions where the larger group of Uzbek refugees is living. Initially, the Tajik government called in Uzbekistan's ambassador and lodged a protest over those strikes. But on Tuesday, Tajikistan's ambassador to Uzbekistan, Tajiddin Mardonov, indicated the matter will soon be left behind. Mardonov said the incident "will not affect relations between our two countries."

Tajikistan announced shortly after the hostage incident began that it was reinforcing its border with Kyrgyzstan and would not permit any of the Uzbeks back into Tajikistan.

But if officials are congratulating themselves on resolving Kyrgyzstan's hostage crisis, they may be doing so prematurely. For one, the gunmen are still in Zardaly and for another a much larger group of armed Uzbeks with no place to go remains in Tajikistan. The Uzbeks are frightened to return home and following Tashkent's strike against their comrades Sunday they are only likely to be more so.

That leaves the region faced with a large but unknown number of increasingly desperate armed Uzbeks which the three countries of the region seem unable to do more than push back and forth between them by threats of force.

Tajik officials must take part of the blame for the hostage-taking in Zardaly. They partially created the problem by revealing to the refugees that they would be sent back to Uzbekistan but then doing nothing to restrain them.

Uzbekistan, likewise, should have been willing to deal with the issue more quickly. Delays caused the crisis in Zardaly. And the lack of supervision over the Uzbek refugees practically guarantees there are many roaming eastern Tajikistan or southern Kyrgyzstan now.

In a region where Islamic extremism is feared above almost all else, the Tajik and Uzbek authorities found a viper's nest, stirred it up, and then walked away. The first result was Zardaly. The next may be yet to come.