The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, based in Tajikistan, is one of the most feared armed extremist groups in Central Asia. Tajikistan is trying again to expel the militants, but as no other country in the region -- including Afghanistan -- is willing to take them in, the effort could lead to more violence. RFE/RL correspondent Bruce Pannier reports.
Prague, 11 May 2000 (RFE/RL ) -- Members of the extremist Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan -- or IMU -- are again being told to leave Tajikistan. For the second time in less than a year, the Tajik government is trying to ship them across the border into Taliban-controlled territory in Afghanistan. But previous attempts to get the group out of Central Asia ended up only complicating matters. And there are concerns that instead of solving the problem, the current effort could lead to renewed fighting.
Said Abdullo Nuri, the leader of one of Tajikistan's largest political parties -- the Islamic Renaissance Party -- went to an IMU base last week to ask the rebels to leave. He told RFE/RL's Tajik Service the talks were tense:
"I had difficult talks, expressing serious concerns about many problems. The whole Tajik peace process could be undermined -- and there are some countries that are interested in that happening. Renewed war is not in the interests of the Uzbek refugees [in Tajikistan], either. I convinced [the IMU] to leave Tajikistan. But it was difficult and unpleasant."
The IMU is composed of mostly Uzbek radicals who say their goal is to overthrow the government in Uzbekistan. In 1997, some of its members -- accused of killing four Uzbek policemen -- began to move across the border to Tajikistan. More IMU members followed last year after an assassination attempt on Uzbek President Islam Karimov.
Last summer, Tajik authorities tried for the first time to expel the IMU from Tajikistan. The Tajiks hoped to push the militants back to Uzbekistan, where they would probably have ended up in jail. But instead of going peacefully, the armed militants moved into southern Kyrgyzstan. They seized several villages, took hostages and, in bands of 30 to 40 men, fought the Kyrgyz army as they tried to make their way toward the Uzbek border.
In the fall, the militants returned to their bases in Tajikistan, and the Tajik government -- with encouragement from both the Kyrgyz and Uzbek governments -- ordered them to leave for Afghanistan. Tajik officials who observed the departure said that all the militants had left. But in fact some -- including commander Juma Namangani -- remained in Tajikistan.
Now the Tajik government has told them again to go to Afghanistan. And once more, authorities say that all the militants have left.
But to complicate matters, Afghanistan's ruling Taliban does not want the IMU in Afghanistan, either. Last week, the Taliban announced that it will not allow the IMU onto its territory. It warned the Tajik and Uzbek governments not to involve Afghanistan in their problems.
With no nation apparently willing to accept the IMU, Central Asian governments are worried the armed militants may once again try to force their way back into Uzbekistan. Tajik political leader Nuri suggests that the Uzbek government should negotiate with the rebels to try to reach a peaceful solution:
"The process of dissidents fleeing Uzbekistan continues -- and now there are about three or four thousand of them who have left their country. [The Uzbek authorities] should resolve the problem through negotiations with these groups and arrange for them to go back home."
Takhir Yuldash is an IMU leader who has publicly defended his organization. In recent comments to RFE/RL's Uzbek Service, he indicated that a negotiated settlement is unlikely:
"The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan are not terrorists but mujaheddin. These people took up arms to defend their religion and suffering Muslims. These goals have not changed at all. Until we achieve these goals, the leaders of this group are ready to sacrifice their lives."
The Uzbek government has also said it does not intend to negotiate with the IMU. That means -- at least, for the time being -- that there is nowhere for the IMU to go. Deportation to Afghanistan would be a temporary solution at best. So if -- as the Taliban has indicated -- the militants are not allowed to stay in Afghanistan, they will probably either return to Tajikistan or cross into Kyrgyzstan again. In any case, they have not announced any change in their goal of overthrowing the Uzbek government.
(Salimjon Aioubov of the Tajik Service and Bill Hasanov of the Uzbek Service contributed to this report.)