Sunday, July 24, 2016


Qishloq Ovozi

Questions Surround Kyrgyz Counterterrorism Raid

Soldiers secure an area during an antiterrorist operation aimed at eliminating armed militants in a Bishkek neighborhood on July 16.
Soldiers secure an area during an antiterrorist operation aimed at eliminating armed militants in a Bishkek neighborhood on July 16.
By Bruce Pannier

Kyrgyzstan's State Committee for National Security (UKMK) is crediting itself with having headed off two terrorist attacks in and near the capital, Bishkek, that could have resulted in mass casualties.

One day after the UKMK launched its security operations, Kyrgyz officials and media are providing some details about the plot.

But the pieces of the story so far compose a bizarre scenario.

First, what is known for sure.

On July 16, Kyrgyz security forces launched raids in a Bishkek neighborhood and near the town of Lebedinovka on the outskirts of the capital. Several videos of the fighting in Bishkek were posted online, showing smoke rising from buildings accompanied by the sounds of gunfire and explosions.

Four militants were reported killed in Bishkek and at least two in Lebedinovka, although some Kyrgyz media sources report four were killed in Lebedinovka. Seven militants were said to have been captured. Four members of the security force were wounded in the battles.

The first reports of the battle on July 16 suggested that Kyrgyz security forces were fighting militants from an "international terrorist" group. Some Kyrgyz media quoted "sources" within the Interior Ministry as saying it was the Islamic State (IS) militant group, although it was unclear what the basis for such a conclusion was.

On July 17, UKMK spokesman Rakhat Sulaimanov said, "The terrorists who were eliminated were connected to the Islamic State [militant group]," which, Kyrgyz officials said, was led by a Kazakh citizen.

But there are some matters that are unclear.

Prior to Sulaimanov's statement, Kyrgyz news agency AKIpress reported that the militants were "Takfiris," which does not rule out them also being from IS, but AKIpress did not make that connection in its report.

Kyrgyz officials and media agree the leader of the group was a Kazakh national named Zhanbolat Amirov. Amirov was the only person who had been identified by early evening on July 17, though some reports added there were Kyrgyz among the militants.

Kazakhstan's tengrinews.kz Internet news agency went so far as to say in its July 17 report that "all the members of the terrorist organization who were killed were citizens of Kazakhstan."

Kazakh officials, as of the posting of this report, had not confirmed that any of those killed in Kyrgyzstan were Kazakh nationals.

As for Amirov, he recently escaped from a Kyrgyz prison. He and another Kazakh citizen, Albert Abkhin, were sentenced in 2014 to four years in prison after being convicted of illegally crossing into Kyrgyzstan. Both reportedly escaped on June 25. On July 2, Kyrgyz security forces located Abkhin in Bishkek and tried to apprehend him, but the suspect reportedly blew himself up.

Kyrgyz authorities claim Amirov was the leader of the terrorist group targeted in the July 16 raid, but it is unclear how, if he had been in prison until late last month, he was able to organize the alleged attacks.

And according to the UKMK, those attacks were meant to target a large gathering of people somewhere in Bishkek and timed for July 17, as Muslims ended the holy period of Ramadan, and another attack would be made on the Russian-led Kant air force base some 40 kilometers outside of Bishkek.

The UKMK released photographs of weapons seized from the militants that showed an assortment of AK-47s, grenades, and material to make explosives.

So far, Kyrgyz officials have provided no details of the exact location of the planned attack in Bishkek or the plot to attack the Kant base.

Sulaimanov said the militants "were planning to stage a blast at the Kant air base in order to take control of weapons and ammunition of the strategic Russian facility."

The Kant military base hosts at least 2,000 troops, including special forces, helicopter gunships, and advanced fighter aircraft. It would be difficult for a handful of militants to shoot their way into such a facility, seize weapons, and escape.

In fairness, investigators are still working and the story as it currently stands is bound to change soon.

But if Kyrgyz officials and media are accurately describing events, it raises a serious question.

Kyrgyzstan, like its Central Asian neighbors, has been on the lookout for any of its nationals returning from Syria, Iraq, or possibly Afghanistan or Pakistan. Kyrgyz and Kazakh officials have acknowledged that at least several hundred of their citizens have gone to the Middle East to join IS.

But the group that fought with Kyrgyz security forces on July 16 seems, according to available information, to have originated in Kazakhstan.

With contributions by RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service
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About This Blog

Qishloq Ovozi is a blog by RFE/RL Central Asia specialist Bruce Pannier that aims to look at the events that are shaping Central Asia and its respective countries, connect some of the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change. Content will draw on the extensive knowledge and contacts of RFE/RL's Central Asian services but also allow scholars in the West, particularly younger scholars who will be tomorrow’s experts on the region, opportunities to share their views on the evolving situation at this Eurasian crossroad. The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.

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