Uzbekistan has been deploying extra border guards to keep out the anti-government militants that have caused trouble in the region. But the heightened security is bringing regional tension: Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are complaining that Uzbekistan's border guards are encroaching on their territories.
Prague, 21 January 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Travelers crossing the borders of Uzbekistan in recent months have had to proceed with caution. Waving travel documents in one hand and a "white flag" in the other might be the best approach.
Uzbekistan has beefed up security on its borders in response to a growing regional threat by an armed group of mostly Uzbek militants that are believed to be trying to return home to unseat the government.
But the extra security has caused problems of its own. In the last two months, the nervous trigger-fingers of Uzbek border guards have resulted in six shootings and one death. And Uzbekistan's neighbors to the east -- Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan -- complain that Uzbekistan's border guards are moving onto their territories in an effort to keep the militants that much further from Uzbek soil.
There is a growing need for the Uzbek government to protect its borders as disaffected youth, turned radical, have left the country and are threatening to return bearing arms. The Islamic groups include Hezbi Tahriri and those the Uzbek government calls Wahhabis.
The most troublesome group, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, is based in the mountains of eastern Tajikistan, in areas still controlled by Tajikistan's Islamic opposition. Hundreds of those Uzbek militants crossed into Kyrgyzstan last summer, taking hostages and demanding passage to Uzbekistan, where, they said, they intended to overthrow the government. At Kyrgyzstan's request, Uzbekistan sent warplanes to attack the militants -- and bombed not only suspected militant positions in Kyrgyzstan but also suspected militant base areas in Tajikistan. In the end, the militants returned through the mountains to Tajikistan at the approach of winter, seemingly having suffered insignificant losses.
In mid-November, an armed group staged a small attack near an Uzbek town (Angren) roughly two hours' drive from the Uzbek capital, Tashkent. Several people were killed, and the government sent thousands of police, soldiers and security troops to crush the 15 militants responsible for that attack.
The Uzbek government said those militants crossed from Kyrgyzstan, although they may just as easily have crossed from Tajikistan or even Kazakhstan. In any case, Uzbek border security was heightened overall.
The new heightened security has resulted in shootings of Tajik, Kyrgyz, and Kazakh citizens along the Uzbek border. In November, Uzbek border guards shot and wounded three men crossing from Tajikistan into Uzbekistan on a motorcycle. In December, guards shot and wounded a Kyrgyz man who was washing his truck in a border river and reportedly killed a Kazakh citizen. And at the beginning of this month, they shot and severely wounded another Kazakh citizen.
A witness to this last shooting, Zhanat Akhmadi, gives his account:
"Baurzhan Ishakov of Sary-Aghash village wanted to cross the border by the bridge usually used by local inhabitants for visiting their relatives last week and was shot by Uzbek border guards without any warning. He is at Sary-Aghash clinic currently, receiving treatment for his wounded leg." Uzbek guards have not said that any of the men shot were militants.
More worrying to Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan than the shootings are the increasing reports that Uzbek border guards have been moving the border posts into Kyrgyz and Tajik territory.
Members of Kyrgyzstan's parliament have been complaining of this for months. The border between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan is circuitous (winds in many directions). One Kyrgyz town, Khaidarkan, is shown on CIS maps to be well inside Kyrgyzstan but is near the heavily armed Uzbek enclave of Soh. Now there is an Uzbek checkpoint, manned by Uzbek soldiers, along the road through the Kyrgyz town.
The Tajik government says the same is now happening in its northern Leninabad region. Border guard chief Anwar Kamolov confirmed the Uzbek encroachment to journalists on Tuesday, and hinted trouble will come of it.
"Our experts report this is a unilateral and conscious action, in a situation where there is no exact delimitation of the border, and it could lead to conflict between the two governments because [the Uzbek government is] not taking into consideration the historic and ethnic realities of this area. Today it is clear to us that Uzbekistan is not observing international rules and they are starting a demarcation in Asht, Zafarabad, Nau, Matcha, Isfara and Tursunzade." Kamolov also said Uzbek media are downplaying Tajikistan's allegations and charging that neither Tajikistan nor Kyrgyzstan is working to eliminate the militant threat.
"As this problem continues the media in Uzbekistan are trying to complicate the situation. They are criticizing Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan for passiveness against these forces. And they say the Uzbek border guards intend to continue step-by-step to strengthen posts and cordon off the Ferghana, Namangan, and Samarkand oblasts. They are trying to seal these areas off and are moving more armed forces into these regions."
A few weeks ago, then-chairman of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Knut Vollebaek said that Central Asia could see conflicts worse than those in the Balkans. Vollebaek said problems in the region should be addressed now, while the possibility exists to do so.
The militants of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan are still in the Tajik mountains. When the weather warms and the snow melts, they will likely come forth again.
But the three governments are not using this winter pause to cooperate against the militants. Instead, they are pointing accusing fingers at one another.
(Abbas Djavadi, Obidjon Choukourov, and Salimjon Aioubov of the Tajik Service, Merhat Sharipzhan of the Kazakh Service and Naryn Idinov of the Kyrgyz Service contributed to this report.)