Government troops in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan say they have beaten back advances by militants of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. But RFE/RL correspondent Bruce Pannier reports that, even if the militants have been defeated for the moment, there is good reason to believe the fighting this month is only the beginning of something much bigger.
Prague, 16 Aug 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The armed militants of the organization calling itself the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, or IMU, are once again fighting in Central Asia. Less than two weeks ago, an IMU group appeared in southeastern Uzbekistan, and several days later another group showed up in southern Kyrgyzstan. In both areas, they fought with government troops, and over the past 11 days the battles have taken more lives than similar conflicts last summer claimed in more than 11 weeks.
Both the Kyrgyz and Uzbek governments say their soldiers have fended off the IMU invaders. In the case of Kyrgyzstan, however, the boast may have been premature -- because early today more IMU militants crossed into Kyrgyz territory.
According to Kyrgyz officials, more than 20 of their soldiers have been killed since last Friday. Uzbek officials say eight of their soldiers were killed. Last year in Kyrgyzstan, about 25 soldiers and civilians were killed in fighting that lasted from August until the end of October.
Both countries have been preparing for the IMU's return since it retreated to bases in neighboring Tajikistan after last year's fighting. But even with extra security measures taken along their borders, the Islamic militants still got through.
Kyrgyzstan presidential press secretary Osmonakun Ibraimov said yesterday that some 100 militants -- who probably crossed from Tajikistan into Kyrgyzstan's southern Batken and Lailek regions late last week -- were either routed, captured or killed. Also yesterday, Uzbek authorities said that their troops had surrounded what was left of about the same number of IMU fighters, who 10 days ago touched off battles in Uzbekistan's southeastern Surhandarya region. Kyrgyz and Uzbek intelligence services say there are several hundred more IMU fighters in Tajikistan and northern Afghanistan.
After the IMU's unexpected arrival in Kyrgyzstan last year, it emerged that some of the organization's leaders had been indicted for criminal acts in Uzbekistan. The Uzbek government blamed one group under IMU leader Juma Namangani for the executions of four policemen in eastern Uzbekistan in late 1997. And it blamed Takhir Yuldash, the leader of a group known as Hizbi Tahrir -- together with Namangani -- for trying to kill Uzbek President Islam Karimov in February 1999.
Beginning in November 1997, the Uzbek government arrested many hundreds of IMU supporters, or friends and families of known or suspected supporters. Others, fearing arrest, fled to remote areas of Tajikistan's central and eastern mountains. Some of those arrested were later executed as terrorists.
Tamara Makarenko, a Central Asian specialist at St. Andrews University in Scotland, says the harsh response of Uzbekistan's government may actually have aggravated the situation.
"Because Tashkent seems to continually suppress the resurgence of Islam as a religion within the region, I think it's disrupting and is affecting the people there. I think initially the people didn't agree with the violence perpetrated by the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. However, as more people are suppressed and oppressed and arrested -- really for no reason -- then the Uzbek government is merely adding to the problem."
For the past year, the IMU has demanded the release of some 50,000 people it alleges have been jailed by Uzbek authorities. When the militants invaded Kyrgyzstan last summer, they demanded that its government allow them passage to Uzbekistan. The Kyrgyz government refused and fighting started.
But last year's fighting was on a far smaller scale than this month's battles. Last August, IMU fighters captured several mountain villages, then broke into smaller groups and headed toward the Uzbek border. The fighting that ensued took place in isolated pockets scattered throughout the Batken region. Estimates of the number of IMU fighters in southern Kyrgyzstan at time ranged from several hundred to more than 1,000.
The key factor behind all the fighting may be Tajikistan, as both Kyrgyz and Uzbek authorities have maintained for months. The fighting with IMU groups in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan were about 250 kilometers apart. But the fire-fights in Uzbekistan took place 20 kilometers from its border with Tajikistan, while the battles in Kyrgyzstan appear never to have extended further than 10 kilometers from its border with Tajikistan.
The Tajik government flatly rejects the charge that there are IMU militants on its territory. Tajik General Nuralisho Nazarov said yesterday that every gorge in the mountains bordering Kyrgyzstan has been checked and rechecked for months and, he said, there is not one armed militant there.
It has been well established that the number of IMU fighters who crossed Uzbek and Kyrgyz borders this month represents only a fraction of the organization's true strength. Estimates run from 2,500 to 7,000 armed IMU fighters.
What military assets the IMU has is not clear. Both last year's and this year's fighting have taken place amid steep hills and high mountains. Small arms are all that can be carried on the narrow paths weaving in and out of the extended mountainous area of conflict.
Both the Kyrgyz and Uzbek governments say their troops have inflicted heavy losses on the militants. There is no way of confirming their claims independently. But, clearly, some militants have eluded government troops. So, with the mountain passes open for another 10 weeks at least, the problem of the IMU in Central Asia may not yet be over this year.
(Naryn Idinov of the Kyrgyz service, Arral Azizullah and Zamira Echanova of the Uzbek Service and Salimjon Aioubov of the Tajik Service contributed to this report)