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Central Asia: Military Exercises Suggest New Focus On Security

Four Central Asian countries and Russia have just completed military exercises called in response to the activities of armed groups in the region. RFE/RL correspondent Bruce Pannier reports that despite the haste with which they were put together, the exercises represent a significant step forward in regional security cooperation.

Prague, 5 November 1999 (RFE/RL) -- In response to events in southern Kyrgyzstan in recent months, four of the CIS Central Asian states and Russia have just held seven days of military exercises dubbed "Southern Shield-1999." The defense ministers of Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Russia met in the eastern Uzbek city of Fergana this week to review the exercises.

Russian Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev said Southern Shield involved some 25,000 troops from the five countries, 150 pieces of heavy artillery, 60 planes and helicopters, and 30 tanks and armored vehicles. It is not clear how many Russian troops actually took part. At a joint press conference in Fergana with his four counterparts, Sergeyev said the exercises went well and stated the goals.

"[The exercise] has a clear, practical orientation as, in fact, we are confronted not by a fictitious, but by a genuine formation of terrorists which is persistently trying to expand its area of operations in the region."

For two months, beginning in August, Islamic militants who crossed from Tajikistan seriously disrupted life in Kyrgyzstan's southern Batken region. The militants took hostages and fought with the Kyrgyz military while demanding unobstructed passage through Kyrgyz territory to Uzbekistan. The mostly Uzbek militants said that once in Uzbekistan, they planned to overthrow the government.

During the course of their occupation of mountain villages in southern Kyrgyzstan, the Uzbek government sent warplanes to bomb them. The Uzbek planes also bombed the militants' bases in eastern Tajikistan, though the Tajik government did not grant permission for the Uzbek military to do so. After several skirmishes with Kyrgyz troops, the militants returned to Tajikistan and remain there despite promises from the Tajik government to evict them.

At the Fergana press conference, Kyrgyz Defense Minister Esen Topoyev was asked about the chances that the militants would be eliminated as a security threat. He responded by stressing the need for cooperation among the region's governments.

"First, solving the Batken problem, as you see here in the general summary of the [military] command headquarters, will come through fulfillment of all responsibilities we have taken, not as a single country, but in the framework of our commonwealth, namely the Collective Security Treaty."

Uzbek Defense Minister Khitmaktullah Tursunov said another exercise, involving all five countries, is planned for next spring. Tursunov also said that if the militants are still "on the territory of one of the countries of the CIS," the next exercise could turn into an actual military operation.

The idea might well win approval from the governments of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and especially Uzbekistan as all are anxious to put an end to the problem the militants pose.

The just concluded military exercises were held largely at the request of Uzbekistan. Ironically, Uzbekistan has pulled out of the CIS Collective Security Treaty which still binds the other participants of the Southern Shield exercises. Uzbek officials were eager to remove any speculation that they were having second thoughts about the decision to withdraw from the treaty. They made it clear the country's participation was in keeping with bilateral defense cooperation agreements signed with all the other countries involved.

Military experts told RFE/RL's correspondents at the defense ministers' meeting that there were not 25,000 troops physically involved in the exercises. An unspecified number never left their base areas but were considered by military planners as available if the exercise was an actual operation. The cooperative aspect of the exercises was also somewhat compromised by the fact that none of the forces of the four Central Asian nations were actually on the territory of the others. Their forces operated at the same time, but separately and only on their own territories.

Nonetheless, Southern Shield is a boost for regional security, particularly following recent events. When the militants arrived in southern Kyrgyzstan in August, little effective help was available from the other states. Russia was just entering what now appears to be a protracted conflict in the northern Caucasus and could not give Kyrgyzstan, and its small poorly trained army, quick assistance. Russia, as well as Kazakhstan, sent only equipment, most of which arrived in Kyrgyzstan only in October. Tajikistan could only help by providing intelligence on the militants. Uzbekistan alone volunteered to send troops and did send warplanes.

So the just concluded military exercises, whatever their limitations, suggest a new focus on security cooperation in the Central Asia.