Islamic militants in southern Kyrgyzstan have been holding hostages for three weeks and negotiations between the militants and the Kyrgyz government have largely broken down. But one mediator, a human rights activist, has been able to come and go freely. RFE/RL's correspondent in Bishkek, Bruce Pannier, speaks to Tursunbek Akunov about his impressions of the Islamic militants.
Bishkek, 14 September 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The Islamic militants, mostly ethnic Uzbeks, number several hundred. Three weeks ago, they entered southern Kyrgyzstan from Tajikistan and captured several villages. The militants are holding hostages, including four Japanese geologists and a Kyrgyz general.
The Kyrgyz government has been reluctant to send negotiators to the rebel-held area. The government is wary because a smaller group of militants that had taken hostages in an earlier incident also captured the very people sent to negotiate with them.
But one man was determined to go. Tursunbek Akunov, head of the Human Rights Movement of Kyrgyzstan, said he felt he had to try to negotiate with the militants. So Akunov traveled to southern Kyrgyzstan and walked into the militants' camp.
Akunov had earned the trust of the Uzbek rebels partly by a lucky coincidence. Two years ago, he petitioned Uzbekistan to stop its repression of Muslims in the Ferghana Valley. The list of oppressed families he compiled included the name of the rebels' leader, Yunus Abdurakhmanov. When Abdurakhmanov learned that, he agreed to a meeting with Akunov. The human rights activist also carried pictures of himself on a trip to Mecca, proving himself a devout Muslim who had made the Hajj.
Akunov returned to the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek, last Thursday, after 18 days in the Batken district, and spoke to RFE/RL the following day. He said the militants were not what he expected.
"The information about them is one-sided in Bishkek. I am not satisfied with it. I cannot say they are nice people, they illegally entered Kyrgyzstan and took hostages, violating our constitution. Their main goal is to spread Islam and to create an Islamic state in Central Asia including Uzbekistan. But about 70 to 80 percent of them are educated people. Some of them have higher education, they graduated from the institutes in Tashkent, Namangan. They are asking for unobstructed passage to Uzbekistan. They have nothing against the people of Kyrgyzstan and want to tell the people of Kyrgyzstan they are not enemies, their enemy is Uzbekistan only."
That claim contradicts a written statement the rebels released in early September, which said their presence in Kyrgyzstan is partially due to Kyrgyzstan's support for the Uzbek government.
The rebels have demanded safe passage to Uzbekistan and the release of thousands of prisoners in Uzbekistan. The Kyrgyz government has not agreed to allow safe passage. And it cannot agree to the release of Uzbek prisoners, as that is a matter for the Uzbek government.
Akunov went initially to Zardaly, the first village taken hostage by the rebels. The Kyrgyz government had paid the rebels $50,000 in ransom for the villagers, but the villagers did not seem to resent the rebels. Akunov says the villagers told him they get along well with the militants.
"The next day, in the morning, I held a meeting with the local population. I announced my name and told them why I came and asked them how life was in Zardaly. I told them I could not stay home when there were such problems with them. I told them I was in Chechnya during the war holding negotiations with mojaheeds. They thanked me and said they had no problems with the militants. The militants told them they had no problems with the Kyrgyz people. The militants are buying food from the villagers for dollars."
Relations between the rebels and the villagers remained good even after the rebels shot a village leader. The rebels said they gave money to the family of the deceased and offered prayers.
Akunov returned from the militants' camp carrying handwritten letters from the captured Kyrgyz official and the Japanese geologists. On Sunday, he was on his way back to deliver the government's proposals, and he was due to meet with Abdurakhmanov yesterday. The Uzbek rebel leader has promised to show Akunov at least one hostage during the meeting to prove that the hostages are still alive.
Meanwhile, high-level meetings among representatives of other countries have so far failed to resolve the crisis. This past weekend, Kyrgyzstan hosted two top-level meetings where the hostage crisis was discussed.
Heads of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) border guard services met on Friday near lake Issyk-Kyl. A Kyrgyz official, Valerii Verchagin, said the militants were not acting alone. He said the recent fighting in Dagestan, the terrorist acts in Tajikistan, and the Taleban offensive in Kabul were "links in the same chain." He alleged that accused Saudi terrorist Osama bin Laden is behind the violence.
On Saturday, defense ministers from Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan discussed possible joint military action against the militants.
Akunov told RFE/RL he was aware that some governments wanted the matter resolved through military action. But he says he has not given up hope that a peaceful solution can be found.
(Ulan Eshmatov and Maksat Toroev of RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Bureau in Bishkek contributed to this article.)