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Kyrgyzstan: Militants Test Regional Security

  • Bruce Pannier

Kyrgyz authorities say that bombs dropped by Uzbek warplanes in southern Kyrgyzstan Aug. 29 killed several civilians. The target of the bombs were militant Uzbek Islamists who are opposed by both governments. But with the bombing, it seems clear that the presence of the militants holds the prospect of adding to tensions between the Central Asian governments. RFE/RL correspondent Bruce Pannier takes a look at how the current situation arose.

Prague, 31 August 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The appearance of Islamic militants in southern Kyrgyzstan is raising two of Uzbek President Islam Karimov's greatest concerns. The first is the presence of Islamic extremists in the region -- something he has long warned is a threat. The second is that because efforts to repel the militants have so far failed, Kyrgyzstan may request that Russian troops be sent to help.

A large group of Uzbek militants, numbering between 500 and 1,000, seized several Kyrgyz villages early last week. The armed Uzbeks also captured four Japanese geologists working at a gold mining site in southern Kyrgyzstan and a high-ranking official from Kyrgyzstan's Interior Ministry. It was the second time that a group of armed Uzbeks had crossed into Kyrgyzstan and taken hostages this month.

The exact identity of the group has been hard to establish. The Uzbeks crossed into Kyrgyzstan not from Uzbekistan but from eastern Tajikistan where they had been hiding from Uzbek authorities.

Uzbeks first started making their way to Tajikistan after the murder of four policemen in eastern Uzbekistan in late 1997. Uzbek authorities blamed the killings on Islamic extremists they termed "Wahhabis". Many people in the Uzbek part of the Fergana Valley were arrested and human rights groups complained many more people than necessary were being caught up in the authorities' net.

With the crackdown, a group of Uzbeks settled in eastern Tajikistan's Garm region, one of the last areas where large battles were fought during that country's civil war. It was still devastated and under the control of the United Tajik Opposition (UTO).

Many more Uzbeks started coming to Tajikistan following the bombings in the Uzbek capital, Tashkent last February 16. The Uzbek government blamed this act on Islamic groups also and began a new wave of arrests. The bombings left 16 people dead, more than 100 injured and was called an attempt on the life of President Karimov.

The Uzbeks in Tajikistan finally came to the notice of Tajik officials when a fight broke out among them in May. A joint delegation from the Tajik government and UTO visited the area and discovered the illegal presence of Uzbek families numbering 1,500-1,600 people. Negotiations between the Uzbek and Tajik governments led to an agreement in late July to repatriate the Uzbeks. However, many of these Uzbek refugees, as they were then termed, likely feared that they faced jail terms or worse if they were sent back.

It was not long after that a group of 21 armed Uzbeks captured the southern Kyrgyz village of Zardaly early this month. What made them decide to capture a village is still unknown. Kyrgyz officials came to negotiate. These officials learned the hostage-takers were indeed Uzbeks, who said they were supporters of Juma Namangani, allegedly an organizer of the 1997 murders of the four Uzbek policemen and the Tashkent bombings in February. The Kyrgyz government paid a ransom to the Uzbeks to release their captive Kygryz citizens. Kyrgyz army and security troops later attacked the militants. But it seems most had disappeared into the difficult nearby terrain which made capture difficult.

During the incident, the Kyrgyz government requested that Uzbekistan use its air force to bomb the militants. The first Uzbek planes targeted not only areas in southern Kyrgyzstan but also struck the areas in eastern Tajikistan where Uzbek refugees had been discovered in May. Last Friday Tajik officials said almost all the Uzbeks living illegally in Garm had disappeared.

The group of Uzbek militants who have seized the Japanese geologists and the villages is a much larger group than the previous one. They crossed into Kyrgyzstan during August 22-23. The militants now are saying they will carry Jihad, holy war, back to Uzbekistan.

The presence of the Uzbeks has prompted a mix of regional coordination and unilateral action. There was a hastily convened meeting over the weekend by representatives of security organizations from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. There was also a call for domestic mobilization by Kyrgyz President Askar Akayev and repeated attacks by Kyrgyz ground forces and Uzbek warplanes. But the militants still occupy the villages and hold all the hostages except four they released in exchange for food.

On Friday several Kyrgyz government officials hinted they may ask Russia for help. Kyrgyzstan is a signatory country to the CIS Collective Security Treaty. Russia's chief-of-staff Anatoly Kvashnin said on Friday his country will give all necessary assistance to Kyrgyzstan. Similar remarks were made by Russia's Federal Security Service and Foreign Intelligence Service. It would not take much effort for Russia to help in southern Kyrgyzstan. Russia's 201st Motorized Rifle Division is still stationed in Tajikistan as well as 14,000 Russian-commanded border guards there.

However, Uzbek President Karimov has long viewed his country as the power of the region and has greatly distanced himself from Moscow and encouraged others in the region to do the same. Karimov will likely do all possible to defeat the militants and bring the matter to a close before Russia becomes involved. But any more misguided Uzbek bombs may raise more doubts in Kyrgyzstan over the value of assistance from the Uzbek authorities.

As for the Uzbek militants, there seems to be nowhere left for them to flee. That may make dealing with them all the more difficult.