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Kyrgyzstan: Scant Details Provided On Islamic Militants

Media reports on the Islamic militants who are holding hostages in southern Kyrgyzstan are scanty. From Bishek, RFE/RL correspondent Bruce Pannier reports on the difficulty of getting reliable information out of the Batken area.

Bishkek, 14 September 1999 (RFE/RL) -- News from the conflict zone in southern Kyrgyzstan is hard to come by. Uzbek militants have been holding hostages in the mountains of the Batken region for more than three weeks. According to local newspapers, the government has attempted to restrict the release of information about the militants, saying it wants to avoid alarming the population. But as the Kyrgyz daily newspaper "Slovo Kyrgyzstana" reported recently, that strategy has had the opposite effect. Rumors proliferate among residents of the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek.

The media in Bishkek are highly critical of the way the government is handling information about the situation. It is extremely difficult even for local journalists to get permission to travel to the conflict area of Batken. For foreign journalists, it is virtually impossible. Tickets for the one flight per week that goes to Batken must be purchased in the parliament building -- a place that is generally off -- limits to foreigners.

The Kyrgyz human rights activist Tursunbek Akunov has been mediating between the government and the militants. He offered to take an RFE/RL correspondent with him on his next trip to Kan, the government-controlled outpost closest to the militant-held area. But the Kyrgyz government firmly rejected that idea, saying any foreigner there could be taken hostage, despite the presence of Kyrgyz soldiers. So for now, information on the Batken region comes from the few official government pronouncements, local Kyrgyz media, and accounts from villagers who fled the area when the fighting began.

What is known for certain is that a large group of armed Islamic militants has won control of several mountain villages. The militants have taken hostage four Japanese geologists, a Kyrgyz general, and several servicemen. It is also known that most of the militants are Uzbeks who support Juma Namangoni, a man the Uzbek government considers a terrorist and an Islamic radical.

But other details about the militant group are uncertain. Estimates of their numbers range from 400 to 2,000. And their aims are even more uncertain. The Kyrgyz newspaper "Utro Bishkeka" reprinted a statement purportedly sent by the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. According to the statement, the militants' "weapons are aimed only at the dictator [Uzbek President Islam] Karimov." The statement says the group's intention is the creation of an Islamic state in Uzbekistan. It also says the militants are engaged in military action on Kyrgyzstan's territory because Kyrgyz forces are blocking their passage to Uzbekistan.

Yet when the militants spoke to Akunov, they said they had more limited objectives. Akunov says the militants told him they wanted safe passage to Uzbekistan and the release of thousands of prisoners there.

Similarly, who is funding the militants is an open question. Juma Namangoni, the Uzbek militant leader thought to be associated with the militants, has often been in Afghanistan, and may be there now. Because of the Afghan connection, the Kyrgyz daily newspaper "Vecherny Bishkek" speculated that the accused terrorist Osama bin Laden is behind the militants. The paper quotes from an interview bin Laden gave to CNN in 1997, in which he said: "We have cleansed Afghanistan. Now we will cleanse Tajikistan, then all of Central Asia."

As a substitute for reports from the scene, Kyrgyz Pyrimida television last night showed a program filmed by the Uzbek government. The two-hour documentary was about the bombings in the Uzbek capital, Tashkent, last February. Many of the militants now in southern Kyrgyzstan are believed to have had a role in those bombings.

The program showed grieving family members mourning the 16 people killed in the Tashkent blasts. Some of the bombers, apprehended by Uzbek authorities, provided details of their plans to assassinate the Uzbek president and overthrow the secular government. They said they wanted to install a new government based on Islamic law in its place.

What little information the Kyrgyz government decides to make known on the conflict with the militants is released by the Defense Ministry in Bishek. Today, a ministry statement said the Uzbek militants could be preparing for a push north into Uzbekistan. The statement said the Islamic fighters had stepped up their activity near two villages in the Batken region, which might be a prelude to a move into Uzbekistan.

But no other details were provided and, for the moment, the standoff apparently continues. Kyrgyz television has been showing footage of the area the militants hold: reddish-gray mountains, extremely steep and difficult to pass through. Other film shows Kyrgyz troops dug in on mountain tops, gazing out into valleys and ravines, where here and there a green patch indicates an inhabited area. But no one says for sure where, exactly, the militants are.