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Central Asia: Kygryz, Uzbek Fighting Against Islamic Militants Pauses

There has been a lull in the fighting between Islamic militants and government troops in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. RFE/RL correspondent Bruce Pannier, who recently visited the area, describes the increased military preparations in both countries and talks to regional experts, who believe the causes of the insurgency have still not been removed.

Prague, 3 October 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Two months ago, for the second summer in a row, armed fighters from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, or IMU, began fighting government troops in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. The fighting has died down now. But both countries' governments believe there are still IMU fighters in their southern mountains.

The IMU's strategy this summer is different from last year's. In 1999, the militants invaded southern Kyrgyzstan by the hundreds, capturing several villages and taking hostages. They were repelled when they descended into the Fergana Valley, heading toward Uzbekistan, whose government they have vowed to overthrow.

This year, small groups of between 20 to 40 militants struck at several points in north and southeastern Uzbekistan and along the Kyrgyz-Tajik border. Fighting began in Uzbekistan's Surhandarya Province, which our correspondent, visited late last month.

In Sariyosiyo, an Uzbek town just outside the battle zone, the runway at the military base is now lined with combat helicopters. In Batken, in Kyrgyzstan -- where the IMU first started fighting last year -- the civilian airport now has military helicopters and warplanes fly dawn patrols. Last year, Kyrgyzstan did not use any warplanes during the fighting.

There now seem to soldiers everywhere -- along the roads in eastern Surhandarya, on the Osh-Batken highway and in Uzbekistan's portion of the Fergana Valley, They ride on military transports or in cars, or march down dirt roads, making their presence known in every nearby village, town or city.

Newly opened traffic tunnels in Uzbekistan's Kamchik Pass are guarded by armed soldiers. There are either police or military checkpoints about every 30 kilometers on these roads, and the checkpoints are more frequent as one approaches the scenes of recent fighting.

But neither the militants nor government troops are now engaged in fighting. To minimize losses, government forces seem content to surround IMU fighters in the mountains and starve them out. Both the Uzbeks and the Kyrgyz have beefed up their military presence in the battle-zone areas, and civilians are returning to their normal lives. They behave almost as if nothing had happened.

But few believe that the troubles are over. According to Uzbek and Kyrgyz officials estimates, the total number of IMU fighters involved in this summer's attacks was no more than 300. But intelligence services in both countries -- and in Russia -- put the overall number of the IMU fighters at about 5,000.

Hugh Pope, a Wall Street Journal correspondent for Central Asia, told RFE/RL that the governments in the region were better prepared for the IMU this year than last year.

"The countries have been far more prepared this year and certainly have taken action on a scale that would have prevented the problem last year."

Umed Babakhanov is the founder of the Dushanbe-based Asia Plus news agency, which closely follows events in the neighboring states. He says the fighting will likely be worse next year.

"Next year, I think this will happen again and on a much greater scale than this year."

British-based Central Asian analyst Tamara Makarenko agrees with Babakhanov:

"I would venture to say we will likely see a repeat next year, depending on how the Central Asian states appear to have strengthened their borders."

Of course, much also depends on the attitude that the Kyrgyz and Uzbek governments adopt toward their citizens in the aftermath of this year's fighting. Mass arrests in Uzbekistan last year seemed merely to aggravate the problem.

Hugh Pope warns that while support for the IMU may not be high among civilians near the conflict zone, neither is support for the government.

"Especially in Uzbekistan, the government is not broadly based -- and certainly not broadly based in the Fergana Valley -- and is widely unpopular."

Pope speculates the IMU may have been trying this year to trigger a large-scale response from the Uzbek government that might further have alienated its citizens. If so, the militants have not yet succeeded.