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Central Asia: Conflict In Kyrgyzstan Threatens Fergana Valley

The battle against Islamic militants in southern Kyrgyzstan is increasingly threatening to spill over into one of the region's most important agricultural areas -- the Fergana Valley. As RFE/RL correspondent Bruce Pannier reports, the conflict could raise tensions between the valley's Tajik, Uzbek, and Kyrgyz populations, which have a long but troubled history of sharing its land.

Prague, 1 September 1999 (RFE/RL) -- In a region characterized by large deserts, high mountains, and wind-blown steppe land, the Fergana Valley is the most valuable agricultural land for a thousand miles in any direction.

In size, it compares to the South American country of Costa Rica and is shared by three states: Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. Each of them count on the valley to play a big role in feeding their growing populations.

But sharing the valley has never been easy. Throughout history, waves of conquests have brought different peoples into the Fergana, either to rule or settle. The valley's northern city of Khujand -- today in Tajikistan -- once was called "Alexandria the Far," one of the furthest outposts of the army of Alexander the Great. Various Chinese dynasties incorporated all or part of the valley for brief periods. And waves of Mongolian and Central Asian nomads that once swept across the steppes and into Europe all passed through its fertile lands.

But it was the Arabs who came from the west in the seventh and eighth centuries who left the most lasting mark on the valley in the form of Islam. When the Arabs arrived, only a few places like the Fergana Valley were home to sedentary culture. Most of the people of Central Asia were nomadic herders. The religion planted deep roots in the Fergana Valley. They remain today.

During most of the last few hundred years, the Fergana Valley was the core of the Kokand Khanate. Ethnicity always played a role in Central Asia, but the great khanates and emirates of the region were multi-ethnic. Whether a person was Kyrgyz, Tajik, Uzbek or any one of the dozens of other peoples present, that person was first a citizen of the Kokand Khanate. But ethnic rivalries never went away.

Moscow -- which took control over Central Asia in the 1800s -- divided the valley between the Uzbek, Kyrgyz and, later, Tajik Soviet Socialist Republics before World War II. In 1990, the last full year the Soviet Union existed, a water and land dispute outside Osh, the second largest city of the then Kyrgyz SSR, turned into three days of rioting, pitting Uzbeks against Kyrgyz.

Uzbeks from the large cities of the Uzbek section of the Fergana Valley tried to cross into Kyrgyzstan to help their relatives across the border. Extra troops had to be rushed to the region to restore order. More than 200 people died.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in late 1991, few of the indigenous peoples of the newly independent states missed serving Moscow. But they soon missed the regular distribution of food throughout the region that Moscow's central government had provided.

By the middle of 1992, a trip to the state store in a village anywhere in Central Asia would get a person potatoes, cabbage, and possibly canned tomatoes, or maybe none of those things. The reason: except for Kazakhstan, the newly independent states had few agricultural fields apart from those in the Fergana Valley because most of the other land is used to raise cotton.

Today, it is no exaggeration to say the Fergana Valley plays a significant role in feeding Kyrgyzstan's 4.5 million people, Tajikistan's six million people and Uzbekistan's 24 million people. And as the populations in all three countries rises, stability in the valley is a paramount strategic concern they all share.

But since last month, the atmosphere around the valley been anything but stable. Hundreds of ethnic Uzbeks -- believed to be loyal to Uzbek Islamic rebel Juma Namagani -- have twice swept from Tajikistan into a mountainous area of southern Kyrgyzstan bordering the valley and taken villagers hostages to support their cause.

Namagani fled to Tajikistan from Uzbekistan's part of the Fergana Valley in 1992 after a crackdown by Tashkent on militants it accused of seeking to set up an Islamic state.

The Uzbek government has accused Namagani of organizing attacks on policemen in late 1997 and carrying out a series of bomb attacks in Tashkent in February of this year.

The first group of Uzbek gunmen to sweep into southern Kyrgyzstan early last month released its hostages in exchange for a ransom. But the second group, which is still holding hostages, has fallen into a protracted war with Kyrgyz security forces that is also embroiling the Uzbek and Tajik governments.

Tashkent has sent war planes to bomb the rebels, but by mistake the planes also hit the outskirts of a Kyrgyz village, killing at least three people. The war planes also struck into Tajikistan which, unlike Kyrgyzstan, did not ask for the assistance against the some 500 to 1,000 gunmen who now seem to be moving freely within the region.

How the fighting in southern Kyrgyzstan is resolved will have a great impact on interethnic relations in the valley. Citizens of Kyrgyzstan are already dead at the hands of Uzbek militants and the bombs of Uzbeks government planes. Tajikistan, too, has been drawn in, though only on a very small scale so far.

All these conflicts are very likely to create new barriers between the peoples of the Fergana Valley.

If and when the Kyrgyz and Uzbek governments finally succeed in forcing the rebels from the hills of southern Kyrgyzstan, the problem will be far from over. The militants are only likely to disperse elsewhere, using the mountainous region around the Fergana Valley to move easily between the three countries.

How easily the rebels can disperse has already been seen since Tajikistan first tried to move the rebels off its territory earlier this summer. Shortly after Tajikistan and Uzbekistan agreed they should be expelled, the rebels launched their first raids into Kyrgyzstan. Since then, the area in Tajikistan where the Uzbeks were living with their families has been reported to now be inhabited by only a few hundred women, children, and old people.

Many of the rebels are probably in Kyrgyzstan, but others may have gone further east into Tajikistan. The presence of these people without a country is likely to spark further conflicts in the region.