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Kyrgyzstan/Uzbekistan: Militaries Brace For Clashes With Islamic Militants

Renewed fighting with Islamic militants has put soldiers in southern Kyrgyzstan on heightened alert. RFE/RL correspondent Bruce Pannier reports from the area that Kyrgyz and Uzbek soldiers do not seem to be sharing information about their common enemy.

Batken region, Kyrgyzstan; 21 September 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The road from Batken, in southern Kyrgyzstan, eastward to Osh crosses through Kyrgyz and Uzbek territory, and military outposts for both countries are stationed along the border. Tension is high as the Kyrgyz and Uzbek militaries each brace for clashes with the Islamic militants that have been holding hostages in the mountains for weeks. Thousands of villagers have fled their mountain homes and descended on the town of Batken, where they are staying in tents or with relatives.

Fighting over the weekend and yesterday left at least 12 Kyrgyz soldiers dead and more than twice that many wounded. The fighting has also left the roads deserted. On Sunday morning, there was almost no sign of activity. No animals were visible, no people, and no smoke from fires that should have been lit early to heat water for tea.

In the Kyrgyz military outposts in the region, the mood is tense. Just last week, soldiers were smiling, their guns left to the side, as the fighting had been confined to short shooting matches in the mountains south of Batken. Now, the fighting is all around, and everyone knows that people are being killed in these battles. Soldiers at guardposts approach every vehicle cautiously, with their machine guns ready. The check of vehicles is thorough and can last one hour per vehicle.

Uzbek outposts are even more on edge, as Uzbekistan is the destination of the militants. Soldiers are massing in Soh, the first Uzbek town across the border, and armored vehicles patrol the streets. Strangely, those soldiers who are willing to comment about the fighting in Kyrgyzstan seem to want the militants to stop delaying and finally approach the border. The militants are close now, in places only a few hours walk from the border, and the Uzbek soldiers are tired of waiting for their arrival.

Uzbek soldiers say they wish their Kyrgyz colleagues well, but they do not have much confidence in the ability of the Kyrgyz army, which is one-tenth the size of their own. The Uzbek soldiers say they would prefer to handle the militants themselves. And they know they may soon have no other option.

One would think the effort to eliminate the militant threat would be a combined effort by Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. The militants are mostly Uzbeks who say they want to travel to Uzbekistan and overthrow the Uzbek government, but they have taken hostages on Kyrgyz territory. The effort against them, however, does not appear to be well coordinated.

At the Uzbek checkpoint near the Kyrgyz town of Khaidarken, the Uzbek officer commanding the post was unaware of the latest developments. Over tea with journalists who had just come from Batken, he seemed surprised to learn that the militants were now on three sides of Soh. That information was known to the Kyrgyz authorities and indeed had been broadcast by RFE/RL and other local, Kyrgyz media. But radio reception is difficult in this part of Central Asia, and communication between the two armies is poor.

The road goes through some beautiful country. High, snow-capped mountains rise above lush, green fields in the valleys. But the soldiers see threats lurking in the beauty, as they search for any movement in these fields or on those mountains. They know the enemy is very close.