A widely feared Islamic militant group has renewed fighting in central Asia. The group is the same one that launched a series of attacks last year in Kyrgyzstan. RFE/RL correspondent Bruce Pannier reports Uzbek authorities are taking the threat very seriously, especially now that some of the fighting has slipped into Uzbekistan itself.
Prague, 9 August 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The rebel Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), considered by regional authorities to be a major security threat, has renewed attacks after being quiet for almost a year.
The fighting started last weekend with at least two battles: one in northern Tajikistan near the Uzbek border and the other in southeastern Uzbekistan, about 20 kilometers from the Tajik border.
The governments of Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan had been preparing for fighting, but the attacks came as a surprise and in areas that are difficult to defend.
Not much is known about the IMU's size and aims. Many of the group's commanders -- including leader Juma Namangani -- fought alongside Tajikistan's Islamic opposition during the 1992 to 1997 Tajik civil war. The group publicly advocates the overthrow of the Uzbek government and the establishment of an Islamic state in the country.
The IMU achieved international notoriety last year when about 1,000 militants launched a series of attacks in southern Kyrgyzstan in order to prevent their being forcibly repatriated to Uzbekistan. The attacks were later repulsed by Kyrgyz soldiers and, with the approach of winter, the militants were forced to retreat to bases in the Tajik mountains.
Uzbek Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov has confirmed that fighting in southeastern Uzbekistan is continuing. He puts the current number of militants at around 100 soldiers. He also says Tajikistan is helping to combat a militant group:
"I would like to emphasize that Uzbek and Tajik authorities are cooperating completely in conducting this operation, the goal of which is the elimination of the terrorists."
The IMU's numbers began to grow in 1997 after the government in Tashkent began cracking down on Islamic groups following the killings of some Uzbek policemen, and last year when a series of bombs exploded in the capital Tashkent. The crackdown forced many militants to leave the country.
The return of the IMU to Uzbekistan, and to areas near it, had been expected. But even as fighting has begun, questions are being asked about how the group managed to re-enter Uzbekistan.
Uzbek Foreign Minister Kamilov maintains the militants got in via Tajikistan, helped by commanders from the former Tajik opposition.
"Former Tajik opposition activists continue to provide the [IMU] all sorts of help."
Tajikistan, however, denies this. Tajik Deputy Minister of Defense Ghairat Adhamov, once a commander in the Tajik opposition, tells RFE/RL that the Tajik opposition did not help the Uzbek militants:
"I can tell you the forces of the Tajik opposition do not have, and have not had, any connection with the Uzbek opposition on the territory of Uzbekistan, [and] has never helped them do so."
Neither claim can be verified. One possibility is that many of the militants were already in Uzbekistan simply awaiting orders to begin fighting.
Tashkent is clearly taking the renewed threat very seriously.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahodyr Umarov says his government has no plans to negotiate with the rebels. He says there is only one way to make the militants understand the futility of their efforts: to eliminate them.
Uzbek Security Council Secretary Rahmonkulov admits it will be difficult to locate all the militants. He said yesterday the country's high mountains, deep ravines and numerous caves provide many possible routes and hiding places.
(Salimjon Aioubov and Soljida Djakfarova of the Tajik Service, Arral Azizullo of the Uzbek Service, and Naryn Idinov of the Kyrgyz Service contributed to this report)