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Kyrgyzstan: U.S. State Department Warns Against IMU Threat

  • Charles Carlson

In a public announcement on 6 May, the U.S. State Department warned that extremist Islamic groups may be planning terrorist attacks against U.S. citizens or U.S. interests in Kyrgyzstan. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Carlson looks at the timing of the announcement and provides background information on the activities in the region of one such group, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.

Prague, 8 May 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The groups referred to in a recent U.S. State Department announcement are the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and the East Turkistan Islamic Movement -- extremist groups believed to have links to Al-Qaeda.

Stuart Patt, the State Department's spokesman for consular affairs, said that on 6 May, "we issued a public announcement concerning the Kyrgyz Republic. The public announcement alerts Americans that extremist groups such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, known as the IMU -- a terrorist organization with links to Al-Qaeda -- may be planning terrorist attacks targeting Americans or American interests in the Kyrgyz Republic. U.S. citizens are urged to consider their safety and security before traveling to the Kyrgyz Republic."

The announcement restricts travel by U.S. government personnel to areas of Kyrgyzstan south and west of Osh, and says the security situation remains fluid in the area along the Kyrgyz-Tajik and Kyrgyz-Uzbek borders. This is due to the history of IMU activity in the area and the presence of land mines in the Batken Oblast region and along the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border. The U.S. Embassy in Bishkek, which continues to observe heightened security precautions, strongly recommends against travel to these areas.

An embassy official described the State Department announcement as an "ordinary" statement to U.S. citizens urging caution, but offered no further comment.

The announcement expires on 31 October unless retracted earlier.

But U.S. citizens living in Kyrgyzstan appeared unfazed by the announcement. One, William Hansen, a professor at Bishkek's American University of Central Asia, said he had reason to feel safer in Kyrgyzstan -- where he has lived the past five years -- than he would at home.

"Based on the history of the last, say, five years, there have been more terrorist attacks, and more victims of terrorism, in the United States than in Kyrgyzstan. So based on that, I think it might be safer to be in Kyrgyzstan than in the United States."

It is unclear what might have prompted the State Department to issue the warning at this time and why the announcement pertains only to Kyrgyzstan and not Tajikistan, which has also been affected by Islamic extremist groups.

Bolot Januzakov, head of the security and defense department for the Kyrgyz presidential administration, declined to discuss what, if any, threat the IMU currently poses in Kyrgyzstan. Still, he emphasized, it is best to be prepared.

"It is impossible to say whether or not there is any danger [from the IMU]. However, our main aim and main duty is to [maintain] the security of our state and nation. We are organizing exercises of our army, our young men, to be ready to face them, always, at any time."

The IMU aims to create a region-wide Islamic caliphate beginning in Uzbekistan and gradually expanding. The group was believed to have been largely cut back by the U.S.-led military action in Afghanistan in 2001. But the U.S. government says the IMU is once again becoming active in Central Asia.

The IMU was particularly active in 1999 and 2000. They were held responsible for a series of bomb blasts in Tashkent that resulted in the deaths of 16 people. They have also been accused of several attacks in Kyrgyzstan, including ones in which four Japanese geologists and several U.S. mountain climbers were taken hostage.

In November 2001 in Afghanistan, Northern Alliance commander General Abdul Rashid Dostum claimed that one of the leaders of the IMU, Djuma Namangani, had been killed that month while fighting in the Taliban's ranks.

Tajik military sources confirmed Dostum's claim. But Afghan and Uzbek officials expressed skepticism about the news; it remains uncertain whether Namangani is dead or alive.

The Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement is a Uyghur extremist movement based in the western Chinese province of Xinjiang. Last year the group was designated a terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department.

The group, which is suspected of having links to Al-Qaeda, has been blamed for bombing buses, movie theaters, department stores and hotels in Xinjiang.

Anti-U.S. sentiment in Kyrgyzstan could be felt last week when 200 demonstrators used May Day (1 May) to protest the presence of U.S. troops at Manas air base, near Bishkek. The air base was used as a staging post for U.S.-led military operations in Afghanistan in 2001, and U.S. soldiers continue to be based there.

The Kyrgyz government opposed the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and denied the use of Manas for that campaign.

(Tyntchtykbek Tchoroev of RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service contributed to this report.)