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Central Asia: Continued Fighting 'Concerns' Putin

Russian President Vladimir Putin said yesterday that recent fighting with Islamic militants in Central Asia will be high on the agenda at Yalta when CIS leaders begin an informal summit there tomorrow. RFE/RL correspondent Bruce Pannier reports on the renewed fighting in the area.

Prague, 17 August 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Russian President Vladimir Putin says that current fighting in Central Asia will be a priority topic at tomorrow's (Friday's) CIS summit in Yalta.

Putin told reporters in Sochi yesterday that the renewed fighting in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan between Islamic militants and government troops is a cause of concern for Russia. Because of the new battles, both the Kyrgyz and Uzbek presidents say they will be unable to attend the meeting.

Putin's remarks clearly referred to the organization calling itself the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, or IMU, which began fighting again in the region 12 days ago. First, an IMU group appeared in southeastern Uzbekistan, and several days later, another group showed up in southern Kyrgyzstan. In both areas, the battles have taken more lives than similar conflicts last summer claimed in more than 11 weeks.

According to Kyrgyz officials, 26 of their soldiers have been killed since last Friday (Aug 11). Uzbek officials say 15 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 Tuesday (Aug. 15) 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. The same day, Uzbek authorities said that their troops had surrounded what was left of about the same number of IMU fighters. 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 Tahriri -- 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.

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 firefights 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.

Kyrgyz officials say up to 800 militants are just across the border in Tajikistan, waiting to come to the aid of IMU fighters already in Kyrgyzstan. Kyrgyz Security Council Secretary Bolot Januzakov said yesterday (Wednesday) that -- at a meeting of the Uzbek, Tajik and Kyrgyz security chiefs last weekend in Batken -- he offered his Tajik counterpart help to "annihilate" all the IMU militants. "We proposed to the Tajiks that if they cannot take care of the problem [that is, the IMU] themselves, then [they should] give the Kyrgyz and Uzbek armed forces the chance to annihilate these groups where they are now."

But the Tajik government flatly rejects the charge there are IMU militants on its territory. After a visit to the Tajik-Kyrgyz border area, Tajik Deputy Defense Minister Gayret Adhamov said yesterday (Wednesday) that every gorge in the mountains bordering Kyrgyzstan has been checked. Not one armed militant was there, he said.

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.

(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)