A Kyrgyz city on the outer edge of a restive Central Asian valley has found itself at the center of a broad controversy -- the prospect that some of its residents are being recruited to join the rebellion in Syria.
Kyzyl-Kiya ("Red Rock") is located in the country's southwestern Batken Province, on the southern edge of the Ferghana Valley.
A coal-mining center, the city has greatly suffered since the breakup of the Soviet Union. Poverty, coupled with a lack of adequate education and training, leaves residents with little choice but to leave for Russia or elsewhere to earn money for their families.
Now, as civil war rages in far-away Syria, questions are being raised over whether Kyzyl-Kiya residents are being recruited to take up arms with the rebels in the fight.
Sulaiman Mamatov says his son is among the young men who have allegedly headed for the battlefields of Syria, by way of Turkey.
Mamatov heads a middle-class, highly religious family. Despite opposition from his relatives, Mamatov agreed to speak briefly with RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service.
He said his son recently called him with the surprise announcement that he was in Istanbul, not Russia, and was leaving to join the rebellion in Syria. Now he is intent on finding out why and how his son's stated plan changed.
"[My son] had said he was going to Russia. Whether they managed to get [to Syria] or if someone helped them to get there, I have no idea," Mamatov says. "Even the Kyrgyz security service is unable to clarify this. About a week ago, he left for Russia for work. All [those who left for Syria] said the same thing to their parents."
'No Clear Information'
Mamatov's name appears on a list recently presented in parliament of families who believe their sons have traveled to Syria instead of Russia.
Mametbek Myrzabaev, an official with the State Commission on Religious Affairs, says seven men in Syria aged 18 to 36 have been identified as Kyrgyz.
They [said they were planning] to go [to Syria] in order to help their Muslim brothers who are being tortured.
Myrzabaev says there is no information about why the group ended up in Turkey -- whether they were invited or recruited by local mosques, and who might have financed their trip.
"They started leaving for Turkey on March 20 with a three- to four-day gap between one another. When they arrived in Turkey they phoned their parents and announced their intention to go to Syria," Myrzabaev says. "Until now, there is no clear information on whether they have entered Syria. The Kyrgyz security service and Interior Ministry are conducting an investigation."
Russian news agencies report that officials from the State Commission on Religious Affairs are visiting southern Kyrgyzstan "for a detailed analysis of the situation."
A commission representative was quoted as saying the officials are "meeting with the families of the departed citizens and verifying information about the alleged involvement of certain mosques in those trips."
Allegations Of Recruitment
Opposition Ata-Jurt (Fatherland) party member Dastanbek Jumabekov raised the issue in parliament on April 17 and alleged that Kyrgyz teenagers were being recruited by local mosques.
The lawmaker quoted residents of Aravan and other districts of the southern region of Osh as saying that about 15 teenage males have been sent to Turkey to join the Syrian conflict.
"Guys phoned from Istanbul and said to their parents, 'If we don't come back and don't see you, it would mean we have been martyred [in Syria],'" Jumabekov told reporters. "When they left home, they said that they would go to Russia, Moscow."
The country's highest religious authority, however, denies allegations about the mosques' involvement in the recruitment.
"Everyone has a right to free movement," says Joro Shergaziev, who heads the Fatwa department at the Spiritual Directorate of Muslims, or the Muftiat. "That's why it is difficult to control it. I think it is inaccurate to say that they went [to Syria] through mosques. Here, in [Kyrgyzstan], there hasn't been any call on Muslims to go to Syria."
'Help Their Muslim Brothers'
In Istanbul, a Turkish man of Kyrgyz origin who helps Kyrgyz and Uzbek workers in Turkey says he recently met three men from Kyrgyzstan who were willing to travel to Syria.
"I met those guys from Kyrgyzstan in the bazaar where we work," the man told RFE/RL on condition of anonymity. "They asked me to help them find a temporary job [in Turkey]. They [said they were planning] to go [to Syria] in order to help their Muslim brothers who are being tortured."
Meanwhile, the Kyrgyz Foreign Ministry is helping to establish the possible whereabouts of the Kyrgyz citizens in Turkey.
In Istanbul, Kyrgyz Consul-General Mirlan Arstanbaev confirms that officials from both countries are working closely on the matter.
"We have a list with 11 names [according to parents' claims]. To date, Turkish authorities have confirmed that five [of them] crossed the Turkish border," he says. "Information that [Kyrgyz citizens] are going to Syria hasn't been clarified yet. This information came only from their parents."
Thousands Of Foreign Fighters
A recent study by the London-based International Center for the Study of Radicalization (ICSR) found that up to 5,500 foreign fighters have traveled to Syria since the crisis erupted more than two years ago.
ICSR senior research fellow Shiraz Maher provided data concerning fighters from Central Asia and the Caucasus collected through the end of March.
"Some figures I can give you is 11 Chechens that we have found," Maher says. "We've heard reports of people from Kazakhstan, but no numbers given. Five from Azerbaijan. Reports of fighters from Uzbekistan and from Turkmenistan, but no numbers. Three Tajiks, four Russians, and four from Daghestan."
Maher says these fighters join the broad spectrum of oppositionist fighters that include, in many cases, jihadi groups but also more secular and progressive groups.
He says they are not mercenaries since they are not paid a salary and their purpose is clearly ideological -- to oppose President Bashar al-Assad and precipitate the downfall of his regime. If they're Islamists, their objective it is to replace Assad's administration with an Islamic state.
Maher says Turkey is the principal route for foreign fighters because the Syrian government has lost control of the border with its northern neighbor, while Ankara allows that border to remain open.