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Uzbekistan: Militants Are Regrouping

The Uzbek militants who held hostages for weeks in southern Kyrgyzstan were supposed to have been deported to Afghanistan last week. But three days ago (Monday), another hostage incident occurred, this time in an Uzbek village. RFE/RL's Bruce Pannier looks at the reports of the militants' newest location.

Prague, 18 November 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Six people, three of them civilians, are reported to have died in the shootout on Monday between some 20 hostage-takers and Uzbek government forces in the Uzbek village of Yangiabad. All the gunmen got away. Uzbek President Islam Karimov said yesterday that the gunmen are members of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. He did not say on what basis that identification was made.

"According to our information, these bandits are part of the same group which operated from August to October in southern Kyrgyzstan."

The militants' ability to penetrate into Uzbekistan represents a major problem for Tashkent. And it speaks poorly for cooperation between Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan -- the three countries whose borders criss-cross the area where the militants are active.

The militant group, led by Juma Namangani, was supposed to have been deported to Afghanistan from their base area in eastern Tajikistan last week. A joint delegation from the Tajik government and the United Tajik Opposition monitored the militants' deportation to Afghanistan. But there is some confusion about how many of them actually arrived there.

Mahmadruzi Iskandarov is the former Tajik minister of emergency situations, and Mirzo Ziyoyev is the man who replaced him. Both are members of the United Tajik Opposition, and both oversaw the deportation. But last week they gave different accounts of it. The current minister, Ziyoyev, said there were no militants left:

"Two or three days ago, all the citizens of Uzbekistan left Tajik territory."

But according to former minister Iskandarov, some militants remain.

"I think that in all of Tajikabad, Garm and Tavil-Dara [districts of Tajikistan], there remain only 100-150 fighters of Juma Namangani. They are all armed."

Russian news services also reported yesterday that Namangani and dozens of his mostly Uzbek Islamic militants remained in Tajikistan. Namangani and his group began arriving in Tajikistan toward the end of 1997, after they were sought in Uzbekistan for brutally executing four members of the Uzbek police. The militants fled to Tajikistan as the only place they might find sanctuary. Tajikistan's Islamic movement is now at peace with the government it fought against for five years, but some still have sympathy for a fellow Islamic group.

Namangani's group has also been blamed for an assassination attempt on Uzbek President Islam Karimov in February.

This summer, when they were about to be deported from Tajikistan, hundreds of members of the group crossed into southern Kyrgyzstan. For two months, there was sporadic fighting, and the militants took hostages, including four Japanese geologists and a Kyrgyz official. Both sides suffered casualties in southern Kyrgyzstan but the militants released the hostages and returned to Tajikistan relatively unscathed.

The Tajik government could not deport the armed militants to a Commonwealth of Independent States country, as Uzbek President Karimov made clear yesterday.

"It is because of Kyrgyzstan's games and the Kyrgyz leadership's weaknesses that we have such consequences."

And attempts to capture the militants would probably result in a long and bloody engagement. So Dushanbe deported the militants to Afghanistan.

Afghanistan's Taliban government, however, denies that the militants are on Afghan territory. First Secretary Noorullah Zadran told RFE/RL the militants have not crossed his country's border.

"Our foreign minister, Wahed Ahmad Mutawakkil, has indicated to the entire world that we do not have anyone there and that no one from that group has been in Afghanistan. He has totally denied it and we will stand by that statement."

Most reports say that at least several hundred members of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan did cross into Afghanistan. But it is not in the Taliban's best interests to admit to the militants' presence. Already under UN-imposed sanctions for not handing over Osama bin Laden, Afghanistan would invite more international condemnation if it admitted to welcoming the Uzbek movement.

Many analysts believe the Afghan movement will encourage the Uzbek movement to continue on its present course -- and not only out of Islamic fellowship. The Uzbek militants are intent on toppling the Uzbek government, which has been no friend to the Taliban.

The timing of this week's militant incursion into Uzbekistan is significant, as Uzbekistan holds elections to parliament on December 5. Whether Monday's violence is the beginning of a larger conflict remains to be seen. What is certain is that the regional problem of Islamic militancy has not gone away.

(Salimjon Aioubov from the Tajik Service, Bill Hasanov and Yakub Turan from the Uzbek Service, and Aina Khallyeva and Zarif Nazar from the Turkmen Service contributed to this report.)