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Kyrgyzstan: Soldiers, Refugees, Journalists Converge On Batken City

The ongoing hostage crisis involving Islamic militants in the southern Kyrgyz region of Batken has emptied many of the mountain villages. As RFE/RL correspondent Bruce Pannier reports from the scene, soldiers, journalists and fleeing villagers have all descended on one central location -- the once-quiet Batken City.

Batken City, Kyrgyzstan; 16 September 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The usual sounds of Batken City are braying donkeys and screeching roosters. Now these sounds are often drowned out by the thumping whir of the military helicopters that fly overhead.

Since last month, when a group of armed Islamic militants captured several mountain villages in the Batken region of southern Kyrgzystan, soldiers have gathered in Batken City, located in the valley. Fighting between soldiers and the militants has driven other mountain villagers from their homes, and they too have gathered in Batken City. And journalists have come to cover the situation of the hostages, including four Japanese geologists and a high-ranking official of the Kyrgyz Interior Ministry.

Guns are now seen everywhere in Batken. Most of those who are armed are soldiers, but many people in civilian clothing can also been seen walking the streets with machine guns slung over their shoulders. The city's mayor was briefly taken hostage last month when he went to negotiate with a small group of militants. Now his building is guarded by two militia men with large machine guns.

For the residents of Batken, it is all very strange. Their city has suddenly been overrun; their only hotel is full. In addition to the soldiers and displaced villagers crowding the city, the press has arrived. Reporters have come from the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek, and from Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Russia, the Czech Republic, and Japan.

In a town where few people have running water, it is strange to see video cameras and satellite telephones. An almost festive atmosphere takes hold in the town during the day, as residents gather in the center, speaking with Japanese, Russians, and other foreigners they never expected to meet.

But while the atmosphere is lively during the day, nightfall brings suspicion. Checkpoints line the roads leading into Batken, and the soldiers manning them look especially nervous once darkness falls. There is no official curfew, but after 10 p.m. few people are about.

And for the more than 3,000 displaced persons who have come to the Batken City area, there is nothing to be festive about. When villagers first began fleeing the fighting, a tent city was set up for them in the stadium. But officials were worried about the spread of disease, and encouraged the villagers to stay in people's homes instead. Now, only one family is still living in the stadium.

Most of those who fled are staying with relatives in villages close to Batken city. They are not easily accommodated. In the home of one woman, Orozgul Sapardayeva, in the nearby village of Dara, 30 people are staying in a house that used to hold seven. A tent has been set up in the backyard, but it only holds four people. The others sleep where they can, on the floor or outside.

The displaced have brought little with them. At the start of the crisis, the Kyrgyz government sent a bus once a day up into the mountains to evacuate people to Batken. As there was barely room to transport all the people, most left their belongings behind. At the home of Sapardayeva, the few things her guests managed to pack along are collected in bundles and tucked into the boughs of trees. Although school is now in session for the regular residents, the children of the visitors are not attending. These children sit or stand around with nothing to do. Their toys were left in their homes. Turlan Suleimanov is 85 years old. Over tea, he told RFE/RL it is hard to be living like a refugee. He and his fellow villagers are mountain people, and Batken city is on the valley floor. The air is too thick and too hot for them.

The village head in Dara said the village has received large shipments of humanitarian aid, but he worries about what will happen when winter comes. Now it is nearly 40 degrees Celsius during the day, but in just one month, the rains will come and the winds will pick up. Sleeping outside will not be an option.

Meanwhile, there has been little progress in negotiations with the militants, who are demanding safe passage to Uzbekistan and the release of prisoners there. Sleepy Batken could play host to its guests for many weeks to come.