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Kyrgyzstan: Hostage Release Has Not Resolved Uzbek Problem

The last hostages taken by Uzbek militants in Kyrgyzstan this summer were freed on Sunday night. Some in the region claim it is the end of the problem with the militants. But RFE/RL correspondent Bruce Pannier reports there is little reason to believe the area has heard the last of them.

Prague, 26 October 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Four Japanese geologists and their Kyrgyz translator, captured by Islamic militants in southern Kyrgyzstan in August, were freed late Sunday night. For government officials in the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek, and Japanese officials in Tokyo, it brings to a close an unfortunate event.

There is relief that these last five hostages are finally free after more than two months. And the Kyrgyz government and military have won praise for their handling of the situation. One gets the impression the incident is over. But the optimism may be premature.

The militants are led by 30-year-old Juma Namangani. Their stated goal is to overthrow the government in Uzbekistan and establish an Islamic state there. The militants are well known to authorities in Uzbekistan, and some are wanted for numerous crimes. Uzbek authorities accuse them of attempting to kill the country's president, Islam Karimov, in a series of bomb blasts last February. Uzbek authorities have sought for some time to capture the militants, prompting many of them to flee Uzbekistan.

Islamic militants have few shelters in the CIS states of Central Asia, except in Tajikistan. There, as part of a peace agreement, Islamic groups share power with the secular government they tried to defeat during the 1992-1997 civil war. Some of Tajikistan's Islamic groups have embraced the peace deal, albeit at times reluctantly. Others still maintain their own order in isolated areas poorly serviced by the country's road and communications systems. It is to these areas that the Uzbek militants fled starting in late 1997. They now maintain bases in mountainous north-central Tajikistan very near the southern border of Kyrgyzstan.

It may have been the final stage of the disarmament process in Tajikistan in early August which prompted some of the militants to make the trek north through the high mountains into Kyrgyzstan. The first group of 21 militants succeeded in capturing a small village and eventually obtained a ransom in return for freeing its inhabitants. They said they wanted free passage back to Uzbekistan, which in this area can only be accomplished via Kyrgyz territory. Less than one week after they were supposedly chased across the border, a larger group of as many as 1,000 militants were back in Kyrgyzstan to seize several villages. They captured the four Japanese geologists, a general from Kyrgyzstan's Interior Ministry, and later several Kyrgyz soldiers sent looking for them.

The Kyrgyz military and security forces attempted to cordon off the area, an impossible task given the 5,000-6,000 meter high mountains that run along the Kyrgyz-Tajik border.

Pleas from the Japanese government not to risk the hostages' lives tempered any actions the Kyrgyz military could take. The poorly-equipped and unprepared Kyrgyz army was forced to wait and respond to the militants rather than hunt them in the mountains.

Unofficial mediators such as Tursumbek Akunov, chairman of the country's Independent Human Rights Movement, Tursunbai Bakir Uulu, from the presidential Human Rights Commission, and Kyrgyzstan's former mufti, Sadykjan Kamalov, met with the militants' leaders. They also met with Tajik opposition leaders, representatives of Afghanistan's Taliban movement, and leading Islamic figures in Arab countries to get help in freeing the hostages.

These efforts were successful in liberating some of the Kyrgyz hostages and, if nothing else, kept a dialogue going with the militants after the Kyrgyz government refused to negotiate directly.

Still, Kyrgyz forces lost 22 men while attempting to contain the militants. Losses among the militants can only be guessed at but appear to be less than 100.

In the end, the advent of winter seems to have decided the situation. By early October, it became obvious some of the militants were returning to Tajikistan. Many reports from Western, Russian and Kyrgyz news agencies claimed the militants were driven from Kyrgyzstan. Yet there is little evidence to show this was the case. The fact the militants released the Japanese hostages not from Kyrgyz territory but from Tajikistan indicates they were able to move fairly freely, and unnoticed, across the border.

Kyrgyzstan has learned some lessons. The country's president, Askar Akayev, mentioned in his state of the nation address to parliament earlier this month that more money needs to be spent on border security. Akayev said it will take $36 million, five million of which has already been spent.

But finding these funds may be difficult. The Kyrgyz government is already struggling to find $150 million to pay Russia for natural gas shipments.

It is also unclear how much damage Kyrgyz forces did to the militants. In an interview with Russian newspaper Kommersant daily printed last week, militant field commander Ali Bokser scoffed at attempts to force his group from Kyrgyzstan. Bokser said his forces went where they wanted and left when they wanted. He said they had accomplished their main purpose and added, quoting "Now the whole world knows about us."

While this may be self flattery to some extent, field commander Bokser makes a valid point. The Tajik government is moving to evict the Uzbek militants from Tajik territory, but so far these attempts have been unsuccessful. Even if a serious effort is made to evict the militants, they will probably just return to Kyrgyzstan. It is possible many are still there waiting. The Kyrgyz army withdrew some of its forces from the border area last week, but these troops may be needed in southern Kyrgyzstan again when spring comes.

(Naryn Idinov of the Kyrgyz Service contributed to this report.)