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Central Asia: Kyrgyz, Tajiks Complain About Uzbek Landmines

A decision by Uzbek officials this summer to place landmines along the country's borders with Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan has prompted complaints from Uzbekistan's Central Asian neighbors. The landmines are targeted at stopping Islamic militants, but the Tajiks and Kyrgyz argue the mines are illegal and more useful in killing civilians and livestock than militants.

Prague, 29 November 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Officials in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are stepping up their complaints about Uzbekistan's decision this year to place landmines along its border with the two countries.

On Monday, Kyrgyz parliamentary deputies and officials from the defense and foreign ministries told reporters the landmines are injuring citizens in southern Batken province.

Tajikistan has been complaining about the problem now for months. Since August at least 20 people, including several children, have been killed by mines placed along the Uzbek-Tajik border.

Equally devastating for the border populations is the loss of livestock. Grazing animals are frequent victims of landmines, and the loss of one cow or several sheep can mean a family goes hungry for the winter. The problem will worsen with the coming winter as snow covers the ground and makes it harder to see where the mines have been placed.

At a press conference today, Uzbek Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov said his government does not accept responsibility for casualties among Tajik citizens:

"What was done was not unexpected by the Tajik side. Complete information was given to the appropriate authorities there."

But Kyrgyz and Tajik officials say they have not been kept informed.

The Uzbek government is using the mines to bar militants from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, or IMU, from entering the country.

Uzbek authorities suspect that the militants this summer entered southeastern Surhandarya province through Tajikistan and northeastern Tashkent province through Kyrgyzstan. The mountainous terrain makes it difficult for Uzbek troops to track the small armed groups. The Uzbek army chose instead to check the militants' advance by forming a defensive line to keep them in the mountains and hills near the borders.

Unfortunately for local residents and livestock, the borders in the mountainous regions are not well-marked -- and in some places are not marked at all.

Uzbek officials counter this by saying that areas with mines are clearly marked as such with warning signs.

Erik Asanaliyev, Kyrgyzstan's ambassador to Tajikistan, says Uzbek soldiers -- and not just Kyrgyz civilians -- are also stepping on the mines. He says this indicates some mined areas are not clearly marked.

Asanaliyev is calling on the Uzbeks to respect the Ottawa Convention, to which Uzbekistan is a signatory. The Ottawa Convention bans the use of anti-personnel landmines.

Tajik officials share Asanaliyev's view. At a meeting of the Tajik- Uzbek border commission this month, Tajik officials said some landmines are actually on Tajik -- not Uzbek -- soil. Tajik officials also point to the Ottawa Convention and say placing mines along the border is illegal.

Both Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have previously accused the Uzbek government of unilaterally demarcating borders to the advantage of Uzbekistan. Such claims make it more difficult for all parties to agree on the borders as arguments invariably erupt over the exact border. Now, there may be no need to worry about demarcating the borders. Uzbekistan has effectively created a buffer zone along them.

(Abbas Djavadi and Soldjida Djakhfarova of the Tajik Service, Naryn Idinov of the Kyrgyz Service, and Zamira Echanova and Akram Faisullo of the Uzbek Service contributed to this report)