The annual Centrasbat military exercises are underway in southern Kazakhstan, with troops from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan training with units from NATO and CIS countries. RFE/RL's Bruce Pannier reports this year's maneuvers are taking place in the shadow of armed clashes in Uzbekistan.
Prague, 15 September 2000 (RFE/RL) -- This year's fourth annual NATO-sponsored military exercises in Central Asia, now underway in Kazakhstan, are taking place amid unusual circumstances.
As 2,000 troops from three Central Asian countries, plus the U.S., Britain, Russia, Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Mongolia, meet to practice mock attack and rescue operations, real fighting is going on in nearby Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. There, a large armed group calling itself the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, or IMU, has staged attacks. Operations to eliminate the last of the militants continue.
Kazakh Defense Minister Sat Tokpakbayev referred to the unusual circumstances in his address to open the Centrasbat exercises:
"This is moreover a recognition of the current, difficult situation engulfing Central Asia."
Tokpakbayev's comments were seconded by the U.S. chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Henry Shelton. Shelton emphasized the role of the exercises in preserving regional security:
"This is a humanitarian assistance and peacekeeping exercise, but it is a key component in developing regional security and cooperation."
The program of the five-day event, held under NATO's Partnership for Peace Program, appears especially oriented toward putting down armed clashes with militants. Today (Friday) troops are to practice how to destroy small military groups. They will also stage games to free hostages, establish demilitarized zones and bring humanitarian aid to victims of conflict.
The fighting appears also to have affected the Centrasbat schedule. The original venue for Centrasbat was to have been outside the Kazakh city of Shymkent, but the Uzbek fighting was just 100 kms away. Now the exercises are being held well to the east near the former capital Almaty. No maneuvers in this year's Centrasbat exercise are being held on Uzbek or Kyrgyz territory, though in the past both have hosted some exercises.
Last year the exercises were held in the United States. This year's events end on Monday.
(Merhat Sharipzhan of the Kazakh Service contributed to this report)