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Central Asia: Conflict With Islamic Militants Widens

Fighting is intensifying in southern Central Asia, where Islamic militants in recent days have widened the area of conflict. Although still confined to the mountains and hills in and around the Ferghana Valley, the militants this week launched an attack less than 100 kilometers from Uzbekistan's capital Tashkent. RFE/RL correspondent Bruce Pannier reports on the latest events in the region.

Prague, 23 August 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Government troops in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan continue to pursue groups of Islamic militants across Central Asia's Ferghana Valley, trying to eliminate one unit before another one appears elsewhere. Both countries say they have defeated militants from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, or IMU, but fresh fighting was reported within hours of their claims and the area of conflict has clearly expanded in recent days.

Since their reappearance in the region three weeks ago, the IMU militants have never attacked one place with more than 40 fighters. They also raid small villages -- far apart -- over a wide area along the Uzbek, Kyrgyz, and Tajik borders. This strategy is different from that of last year, when IMU militants in the hundreds crossed over the mountains from Tajikistan to southern Kyrgyzstan and fighting was confined to two Kyrgyz regions.

Casualty figures are already higher this year than last year, when the fighting continued until October. At least 15 Uzbek government troops have been killed, an unknown number wounded and some captured by the militants. About 30 Kyrgyz soldiers are said to have been killed by the IMU. Government figures -- the only source available -- say over 100 militants have been killed in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan this month.

In three months' fighting last year, 27 Kyrgyz were said to have perished. Some were civilian, and half the dead were killed away from combat areas. The militants' losses were never exactly known, but they were estimated at around 50.

The IMU militants struck first this month in southeast Uzbekistan's Surhandarya region. Two -- or perhaps several -- groups totaling up to 100 fighters briefly seized two or three villages about 25 kilometers from the Tajik border before government troops arrived with artillery and helicopter gun-ships. Civilians were evacuated quickly, leaving the combatants to fight it out.

The Uzbek military sought to starve the surrounded militants out. Yesterday (Tuesday), the Tashkent government pronounced the fighting in Surhandarya nearly over. But the day before (Tuesday), fighting had broken out in the village of Burchmulla in the Tashkent region -- more than 400 kilometers to the north of Surhandarya -- when an estimated 15 militants appeared. Burchmulla is less than 100 kilometers from the Uzbek capital Tashkent and also very near the border with Kazakhstan.

This month's fighting in Kyrgyzstan has occurred along a 150-kilometer stretch of the Tajik-Kyrgyz border. It started one week after fighting began in Uzbekistan. Militants in groups of 30 to 50 attacked three mountain frontier posts along the border's western segment. Locked in stand-offs with government troops at the three border posts, the militants are now attacking further to the east.

Increased border security since the militants first appearance last year has proved to be inadequate. Government troops in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan have kept militants groups from progressing more than 30 kilometers into their territories. But security forces in both countries are unable to block all passages across state borders.

The militants have experience at slipping past border security. Both Central Asian governments and Russia say the militants have bases in Afghanistan. Tajikistan twice deported them to Afghanistan. A few days ago, Russian border guards defending Tajikistan's border with Afghanistan captured two IMU militants and killed another on -- proof, perhaps, that militants are coming from Afghanistan.

In addition, attempts at narcotics interdiction in the region have shown that drug dealers have an extensive and well-developed trafficking network. Recent seizures of drugs by Uzbek, Tajik, Kyrgyz, and Russian troops run into tons. For traffickers to risk getting caught with more than a ton of heroin, the reasoning goes, they must believe it is possible to move from Afghanistan through much of Central Asia without being apprehended by law enforcement officials. And, if it works for drug traffickers -- the same reasoning continues -- why not for Islamic militants?

If the fighting continues or escalates, the ability of the IMU militants to strike in a variety of locations with no apparent pattern could prove unnerving to the governments and troops of the countries concerned. It appears that, as long as the IMU operates in small groups, it cannot be totally eliminated -- but it also cannot achieve a military victory. At the same, claims of victory made by Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan ring hollow hours after they are made. In short, no immediate resolution is in sight.

(Arral Azizullah of the Uzbek Service, Naryn Idinov of the Kyrgyz Service, and Salimjon Aioubov of the Tajik Service contributed to this report)