For months, media reports in the region have claimed that militants from Central Asia are conducting violent operations in Pakistan's volatile tribal areas along the Afghan border.
Now, Pakistan Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani has not only confirmed those reports, according to which hundreds of IMU militants are holed up in Pakistan's tribal belt, but also pinned some of the blame for a recent rise in violence there on the Central Asian militants.
Speaking on June 28, Gilani stated that "foreign elements hailing from Central Asian republics are disturbing peace in the tribal areas." Gilani was apparently referring to the mainly Uzbek Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), an Al-Qaeda-inspired group originally founded to topple Central Asian governments and replace them with an Islamic caliphate.
He gave no other details. And what Pakistan intends to do about the presence of the militants remains unclear -- although senior officials including Major-General Ahtar Abbas acknowledge that military action against them is not imminent.
"There are no operations imminent because, as you know, there are already peace talks between the government and tribes there," Abbas said.
The IMU, which made headlines in January after reports of bloody clashes in South Waziristan with local tribesmen, first emerged as a militant group bent on overthrowing autocratic Uzbek President Islam Karimov. Many of its members were hosted by Al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan but ended up in Pakistan following the U.S.-led topping of the Taliban in late 2001.
The Pakistani government, in a bid to diffuse rising violence in the area, has been carrying out negotiations with pro-Taliban militants and local tribal leaders. But the IMU militants appear not to be part of this process.
Indeed, Pakistani officials like Abbas say they want to the IMU members to leave the country but would prefer that the problem be solved by local leaders.
"Allow a homegrown solution to emerge is what government is trying to do. This solution would comprise of first to ask [the tribes] to control the area and remove all the foreigners," Abbas said. "The government wants the tribes to throw out the foreigners in the area and is ready to give them some time in this regard."
Gilani reiterated the government's desire to negotiate peace deals with those who put down their weapons. But he added that Pakistan, which this week launched an attack on pro-Taliban militia near the city of Peshawar, would continue to use force against those who resort to violence and sow insecurity.
Experts believe that the group, with some 500 members, now poses more of a threat to Pakistan than to the Uzbek regime.
Pakistani journalist and the author Ahmed Rashid told RFE/RL that the group has localized its activities in Paksitan's tribal belt.
"We've seen more and more of these people coming in. We have seen more suicide bombers in Afghanistan who supposed to be Uzbek from Uzbekistan," Rashid said. "Clearly, there's something going on here."
History Of Violence
Pakistan's "Daily Times" has described IMU leader Tohir Yuldash as staunch follower of Al-Qaeda's second-in-command, Aiman al-Zawahiri. Yuldash reportedly believes that jihad should first target not the United States but "hypocritical Muslims" who somehow support Washington.
Uzbek militants have been blamed in some reports for violence against and disregard for local Pashtun culture in Waziristan, including killings and assassination attempts against some tribal leaders considered loyal to Pakistan's central government.
Last year, Pakistani forces claimed to have killed at least 150 Uzbek militants.
Early this year, the IMU said it had joined up with the forces of local militant leader Baitullah Mehsud to battle Pakistani forces and local tribal leaders. In an audio clip sent to RFERL's Uzbek Service in January, a self-described IMU spokesman, Abdulfattoh Ahmadi, purported to describe those clashes.
"For a week, Pakistani forces and tribal Muslims have engaged in heavy fighting in Spinkay, Makin, and Razmak regions," Ahmadi said. "Heavy weapons constantly are targeting civilians and women with babies can be seen running away in severe cold. However, government forces also suffer losses. Some government positions are seized and some burned down."
What is unclear is the real strength of the IMU, which is on the U.S. State Department's list of designated foreign terrorist organizations.
There have been several past reports that Yuldash 40, had been killed. But each time they were apparently disproved with the release of fresh audio addresses from the Uzbek militant leader.
Karimov, speaking after the Taliban's ouster from power in 2001, said "the IMU posses no threat to Uzbekistan." But to help prevent militants from invading the former Soviet republics of Central Asia, governments there have formed a rapid reaction forces under the pro-Russian Collective Security Treaty Organization.
Meanwhile, from South Waziristan, the IMU continues to search for ways to replenish its depleted and scattered ranks by promoting a new strategy - one that seeks to take aim at the government of Pakistan and its supporters.