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Kyrgyzstan: Uzbek Militants' Presence Causes Concern

Kyrgyz officials say that last night, two Uzbek warplanes bombed a remote village in southern Kyrgyzstan, killing at least 3 civilians. The Uzbeks say they meant to target Uzbek militants, who have seized hostages in the region. RFE/RL correspondent Beatrice Hogan discusses possible security implications of the hostage-taking and the bombing with an analyst at Britain's Royal Institute of International Affairs.

Prague, 31 August 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Uzbekistan says it meant to target a Kyrgyz village which armed Uzbek rebels overtook last week. But the bombs missed their mark.

The rebels are believed to have seized some 100 hostages in southern Kyrgyzstan, including four Japanese geologists.

Shirin Akiner, Associate Fellow at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London, spoke by telephone yesterday with RFE/RL. She says the incident highlights uncertainty surrounding how regional governments are dealing with the Uzbek militants, who are believed to number more than 500.

"The significance of this recent incident is, it seems to me, that the level of instability is far higher than had previously been assumed. It could mean that the Central Asian states will now cooperate and work more closely together on security matters. On the other hand, there does seem to be a very high level of confusion as to what has happened, who is pursuing whom, [and] what actions should be taken. So, in other words, it seems to me that one of the first things that would have to be done is a certain amount of confidence building amongst the states themselves to decide what action is appropriate under these circumstances."

Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan share the Fergana Valley, a densely populated region that has been seen as a hotbed of Muslim fundamentalism. Uzbek President Islam Karimov started a massive crackdown on Muslim fundamentalism in December 1997, which led thousands -- including those who are thought to be the armed rebels in this incident -- to flee into Tajikistan.

The mountains surrounding the valley could easily have provided ample cover and numerous unguarded passageways for the rebels crossing between countries.

Uzbekistan, moreover, has been seen as an island of stability in a region familiar with Muslim fundamentalism, notably in the civil wars in Tajikistan and Afghanistan. The February 16 bombings in Tashkent, which Uzbek authorities say was an assassination attempt against Karimov, was the first sign that Uzbekistan was not immune from the problem. "The rebels came from the Fergana Valley and at least suggested that they had help from the Taliban [militia of Afghanistan]. But why they should be having help from the Taliban is not at all clear. It is indicated that they want to set up an Islamic state. On the other hand, they have not sent any messages with the hostages and, in fact, have not made any demands. So why this action was taken remains unclear."

Uzbekistan this year pulled out of the CIS's collective security treaty, which includes Russia. Yet, Kyrgyzstan remains a member, meaning that it has the right to appeal to Russia for military assistance during the crisis. But a stepped-up Russian military presence in Central Asia could hinder Uzbekistan's own hopes to assert itself as a regional power.

Akiner makes the point that Uzbekistan has the strongest military among Central Asian states.

"Uzbekistan is by far larger than any of the other Central Asian states. There is, therefore, a certain amount of nervousness as to what Uzbekistan's long-term intentions are. And also Uzbekistan has a far better army -- far better planned, far better organized, far larger -- than any of the other states. The Kyrgyz army is very small in comparison. So there is a certain amount of nervousness, and even if the Uzbeks were acting with the best possible intentions now, there is concern about their long-term intentions."

Relations between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan face areas of tension. The border region dividing them is ethnically mixed and some parts of the border are not well demarcated.

Water has also been a point of tension between the two countries. Kyrgyzstan, a mountainous and relatively sparsely populated nation, controls the headwaters of the region's two main rivers, the Syr Darya and the Amu Darya. Uzbekistan sits downstream and is water-dependent, but has the region's largest population and agricultural economy to support.

Kyrgyzstan has demanded that Uzbekistan help pay for the upkeep of sluices and reservoirs inside Kyrgyzstan. But Uzbekistan has refused to comply, saying that water is natural, not commercial goods, and must therefore be allowed to flow unimpeded. Yet when Kyrgyzstan has tried to turn off the tap, Uzbekistan has retaliated by halting gas supplies.

It remains to be seen whether the challenge presented by the Uzbek rebels in Kyrgyzstan will add to tensions between the two countries or dissipate them through the example of effective cooperation. But Sunday night's misdirected bombing by Uzbek forces suggests little reason for optimism.