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Central Asia: Joint Military Exercise Practices Common Defense

A joint military exercise is under way in Central Asia involving seven nations. Known as "Southern Shield 2000," the exercise is intended to practice preventing the kind of cross-border incursion that occurred last summer in Kyrgyzstan. RFE/RL correspondent Bruce Pannier reports.

Prague, 29 March 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Extremists beware. The military exercise "Southern Shield-2000" began in Tajikistan this week. Unlike last fall's "Southern Shield" exercise, which existed only on paper, thousands of troops are mobilized for the largest military exercise yet held in the Central Asian nations of the Commonwealth of Independent States.

Large contingents from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Russia are participating in the ten-day exercise, along with smaller groups from the defense ministries of Armenia and Belarus. Live fire exercises will be conducted in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, near the border with Afghanistan, on April 2 and 3. An exercise involving the air defense system will be conducted on April 5 and 6, from Belarus across to Central Asia.

The enemy in this case is hypothetical. But the commander of the exercise, Lieutenant-General Leonid Maltsev of Russia (senior deputy chief-of-staff of the Headquarters for CIS Military Cooperation), said the script for the exercise resembles what happened in southern Kyrgyzstan last year.

"These exercises are not simply someone's imagination. These exercises are a response to real developments in the situation [of the region]."

Maltsev was referring to an armed incursion last summer, when as many as 1,000 Islamic extremists, mainly of Uzbek origin, crossed into the mountains of southern Kyrgyzstan. The militants seized villages, took hostages and held off the Kyrgyz army for two months.

The militants were a problem for Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, but also for Tajikistan, where they had established bases after fleeing from Uzbek authorities. Uzbekistan's government had said the extremists were responsible for acts of terrorism.

The region has seen joint military exercises several times in the past few years. NATO sponsored exercises in the region twice under the Partnership for Peace program: in 1997 in southern Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, and in 1998 in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. Those exercises included troops from NATO countries, like the U.S and Turkey, and from NATO hopefuls, like Georgia and Azerbaijan, as well as from the Central Asian host nations.

But the NATO-sponsored exercises were not designed primarily to practice combating extremists. Instead, the exercises simulated bringing relief to civilians after a natural disaster, such as an earthquake or flood, and also helped prepare a Central Asian peacekeeping battalion that could be deployed abroad (Centrasbat). Part of the exercises did simulate defending or liberating key facilities captured by terrorists, such as airports or power plants.

What they did not do, however, was prepare the region for the actual threat that emerged last summer. When the genuine terrorists arrived in Kyrgyzstan, they did not seize any major facilities. They remained lodged in remote, high mountain areas, and Kyrgyzstan was left alone to confront them with only limited air support from Uzbekistan. The militants did take hostages: four Japanese geologists. Concern from Tokyo, a major investor in Central Asia, prevented the Kyrgyz army from taking stronger measures.

The threat from these militants, who call themselves the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, has not gone away. They seek to overthrow the government in Uzbekistan and create an Islamic state. Uzbek authorities say the militants are responsible for trying to kill President Islam Karimov in the February 1999 bombings in Tashkent. Most of them escaped back into Tajikistan at the end of October and are still there.

Colonel Mikhail Ivannikov from Uzbekistan's Defense Ministry was in Tajikistan to observe the start of the exercise this week. He said Uzbekistan recognizes the necessity of cooperating with its neighbors to fight this armed group.

"Of course Uzbekistan is interested in conducting such exercises, because we cannot solve the problem of our state's stability and security separately from our neighbors."

Russia has consistently drawn comparisons between the Uzbek militants and the Chechen rebels, saying both groups are Islamic militants. Around the same time of the Kyrgyz hostage crisis, Russia was beginning military operations in Dagestan and later Chechnya, and Moscow took every opportunity to tell Central Asian leaders that they had a common enemy in Islamic extremism.

Uzbekistan seems to have been impressed by Moscow's talk. Earlier last year, Uzbekistan had pulled out of the CIS Collective Security agreement. By year's end, and following a December visit by Russian acting President Vladimir Putin, at that time prime minister, Tashkent had totally changed its view. President Islam Karimov was re-elected earlier this year and said at his inauguration that the militants would be defeated with Russia's help.

The NATO-sponsored exercises in 1997 and 1998 were a source of pride to the three governments who sent troops to participate. It would be a sign of maturity and stability to send troops abroad to keep peace in far-away lands. But the militant attack last summer destroyed all that. Now, keeping the peace at home takes precedence.

Russia has not missed this opportunity. NATO will not send troops to help defend any of the CIS Central Asian states, but Russia is indicating it will at least help these countries defend themselves. President-elect Vladimir Putin reiterated at a CIS interior ministers' meeting earlier this month (March 10) that "terrorists" have done great damage to Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. He has also supported the idea of a CIS anti-terrorism center.

The question that remains is what will be the cost to the independent countries of CIS Central Asia for receiving such help.

(Farangiz Najibullah of the Tajik Service contributed to this report.)