After weeks of tension in the Batken region of Kyrgyzstan, where Islamic militants are holding hostages, several Kyrgyz politicians have come to inspect the area for themselves. One of them, former national security minister Feliks Kulov, took the opportunity to criticize the government's strategy against the militants. RFE/RL correspondent Bruce Pannier reports from Batken.
Batken City, Kyrgyzstan, 20 September 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Several important Kyrgyz officials are finally coming to the scene of conflict in the country's south. The area has been tense since last month, when first a small group of armed Islamic militants, then a much larger one crossed into the region from neighboring Tajikistan. The militants, who are holding several hostages, are now spread out in the Batken and Chon-Alai regions of southern Kyrgyzstan.
The first few government officials who arrived in the city of Batken were briefed by local officials at the city's small airport. By many people's accounts, the planes or helicopters that brought these officials from the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek, kept their engines running in case a hasty departure was needed. But even though there was shooting 20 kilometers away on Thursday night, the former first secretary of the Kyrgyz Soviet Socialist Republic came to Batken on Friday and the country's former minister of national security arrived on Thursday.
Turdakun Usubaliev, the former first secretary of the Kyrgyz Communist Party (from 1961 to 1985) is now 80 years old and a member of the Kyrgyz parliament. He came to Batken on Friday to tell its residents to remain calm. He said the situation is under control. And he said that the Kyrgyz government and international organizations had already prepared $21,000 (900,000 som) worth of humanitarian aid, much of which has already arrived.
The aid will go to help the more than 3,000 displaced persons in the Batken region and 2,500 others in the neighboring Chon-Alai region. It may not sound like much, but in an area where 10 cents can buy a kilogram of potatoes, $21,000 dollars represents a significant amount of food. Local officials say they now have enough flour to feed the displaced people in the two regions for four months.
But while UsubAliyev said there was no cause for worry, former national security minister Feliks Kulov had a different message. In between speeches to villagers in Dara and Chek --to whom he distributed aid-- Kulov spoke with our correspondent about the Islamic militants and the government's strategy of containing them.
The former security head expressed clear disapproval of the government's approach, which so far has been to contain the militants and at the same time force them out of their mountain refuges. Kulov indicated he believed that if the militants were able to stay through the spring of next year, it may be impossible to clear all of them from Kyrgyz territory for years.
Still, Kulov absolutely rejected any strategy of complying with the militants' demands for clear passage to Uzbekistan. Most of the militants are Uzbek, and their goal is the overthrow of the current system of government there and the creation of an Islamic state.
Kulov said it is Kyrgyzstan's job to eliminate the militants now. He especially fears that the militants may be winning over the local population, both in villages under the militants' control and in nearby villages.
The militants are known to be paying high prices for food -- and paying in U.S. currency. Kulov said residents of militant-controlled villages are lining up to sell their food to the insurgents. Even some people who live outside the militant-controlled villages are traveling to those villages to sell to the militants. The militants pay far more than the villagers would get for their wares at local markets.
Kulov said the dollars the militants are paying with are counterfeit. He acknowledged that they were good forgeries, however, and said some of the fake dollars have already turned up in the northern part of the country.
Kulov admitted a military operation against the militants might result in civilian casualties, and possibly even cause the deaths of the hostages -- four Japanese geologists, an Interior Ministry general and other Kyrgyz soldiers. But he said delaying a military operation would be far more disastrous for Kyrgyzstan, and for relations among the many ethnic groups of the Ferghana Valley.
Kulov also spoke about Kyrgyzstan's parliamentary elections, due in February. He confirmed that his political party, Ar-Namys, will field candidates, but declined to say whether he himself would run for the presidency. That, he said, was up to his party to decide. Kulov was mayor of Bishkek until last spring, when he quit, saying he could not work under the conditions created by President Askar Akaev. That's when he formed his own political party.
On Thursday (Sept. 16), Kulov clearly gained some supporters in the villages of Dara and Chek, both not far from Batken. Many present said they took note that Kulov came to see them while President Akaev has yet to visit the area. And if the shooting keeps moving closer to Batken, many more people here are likely to end up sharing Kulov's views.