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Kyrgyzstan: Security Council Secretary Warns Of Fresh IMU Attacks, But To What End?

Kyrgyz Security Council Secretary Misir Ashyrkulov has repeatedly accused the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) of organizing new incursions into the Ferghana Valley, which straddles Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan. According to Ashyrkulov, the IMU is attempting to destabilize the situation not only in Kyrgyzstan but in all of Central Asia. RFE/RL correspondent Zamira Eshanova takes a closer look at the statements made by Ashyrkulov and other regional officials and discusses the likelihood of new IMU attacks with an independent expert.

Prague, 5 July 2002 (RFE/RL) -- A top Kyrgyz security official is warning of the threat of fresh incursions by the radical Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, or IMU.

In an interview in the "Moya stolitsa" (My Capital) newspaper on 3 July, Misir Ashyrkulov, secretary of Kyrgyzstan's Security Council, said he believes the IMU -- recognized by the U.S. State Department as a foreign terrorist organization -- is preparing new attacks on Kyrgyzstan.

The IMU in recent years has staged armed incursions into Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, with the goal of creating an Islamic state in Central Asia. It is believed to maintain bases in Afghanistan for operations against Tashkent and other targets. In addition, Uzbek President Islam Karimov recently accused Pakistan of doing too little to stop IMU fighters from fleeing across its border, and the U.S. daily "The Washington Times" raised the possibility that IMU fighters may also be seeking sanctuary in Iran.

In previous statements, Ashyrkulov has said he believes some 300 IMU militants are planning to cross from Afghanistan into Central Asia, but that he did not want to disclose further details.

In his interview in "Moya stolitsa," however, Ashyrkulov elaborated on his warning. He said he believes IMU militants have a three-stage plan for destabilizing the region.

He said the first stage is the destabilization of societies in the south, represented, he said, by the activities of Hizb ut-Tahrir, or Party of Liberation, an Islamic group that advocates the establishment through peaceful means of an Islamic state in Central Asia. Central Asian government have cracked down on the group, however, and scores of its members have been arrested and sentenced to prison.

The second stage is the penetration of armed bands of international terrorists into the southern regions of Kyrgyzstan, where he said there is no stable public security.

The third stage, he said, is an effort to stir up national hatred, exemplified by the political demands of ethnic Uzbeks.

He added that IMU militants would first infiltrate into Tajikistan and then southern Kyrgyzstan and that small armed groups have already been seen at the Tajik-Afghan border. Ashyrkulov also mentioned the possibility that some groups have already crossed into Tajikistan.

This possibility is rejected, however, by a number of high-ranking Tajik officials, such as Foreign Minister Talbak Nazarov and Deputy Prime Minister Saidamir Zuhurov.

Despite repeated rejections from these officials, Nuralishoh Nazarov, a deputy chairman of Tajikistan's State Committee on the Border Service, recently added his voice to Ashyrkulov's warnings. "Despite the American war on terrorism, the threat to our southern borders still remains. It's not time to sit and watch. Taliban supporters still have a chance not only to be active in northern Afghanistan, but also to build up their new bases there too. That's why border security has to be increased further. The possibility that terrorists could penetrate into our territory should not be excluded," Nazarov said.

The Afghan-Tajik border is still mostly guarded by the Russian Border Service. Some 25,000 Russian troops control most of Tajikistan's 1,400-kilometer border with Afghanistan.

In a recent statement, the director of the Russian Federal Border Service, General Konstantin Totskii, also mentioned new attempts by terrorists to infiltrate the southern borders of the CIS. At the same time, he downplayed the scale of any possible threat. "At the beginning of this year, we caught two groups [on the Afghan-Tajik border]. But I should say that we don't possess that much information about these groups. These are small groups -- quite disorganized and unarmed," Totskii said.

David Lewis is the Central Asian Project Director for the International Crisis Group, based in Osh in southern Kyrgyzstan. Lewis said it is clear the IMU is still active, and that it would not be surprising if movement by the group had been observed.

But Lewis said he thinks the warnings given by Ashyrkulov exaggerate the threat. If so, whose interests would such a statement serve? "The cynical view might suggest that it would be useful for some people to have a difficult situation in the south to distract attention from the political situation [in Kyrgyzstan]. But it may just reflect their own fears of what this situation is. Clearly, some people may think it useful to have a military situation in the south," Lewis said.

Since the start of the year, thousands of Kyrgyz have participated in protest actions, especially in the southern Aksy Raion, against the arrest and subsequent conviction of popular opposition lawmaker Azimbek Beknazarov on charges of abuse of power. The shooting deaths in March of five demonstrators by police caused a public outcry that led to the resignation of the Kyrgyz government in May. A special commission blamed state officials for the bloodshed.

Some observers believe the Kyrgyz Security Council chief's statement about the threat from the IMU is aimed not only at distracting attention from the worsening political situation in the country, particularly in the southern Djalalabad region, where protest actions are continuing, but also to create grounds for the possible deployment of Russian ground troops.

Lewis partly agrees with this view but said that with around 2,000 soldiers from the U.S. and other antiterrorism coalition countries on the ground in Kyrgyzstan, it would be difficult for Bishkek to host Russian troops. "There is already intensified Russian interest here and increased intelligence presence from the Russian FSB [Federal Security Service] and so on. It looks like [Kyrgyz President Askar] Akaev is trying to attract Russian support, so there's some possibility of that. But I think that the ground presence of Russian troops would be very controversial, not least with Uzbekistan. So it would be a very radical step," Lewis said.

At the same time, Lewis believes that if the threatened IMU attacks did materialize, Russia would likely help by sending military advisers and technical aid.

As for the U.S., Lewis discounts the possibility that American troops would become directly involved in any conflicts with the IMU. "I think the U.S. would like not to get involved in anything like that. But they will obviously provide -- have been providing -- training to Kyrgyz troops and technical support and may continue to do so, I'm sure. I would be surprised if U.S. troops were used on the ground. I think the numbers [of IMU militants] that are realistically possible are very small, so there's no real need for external military assistance, I think," Lewis said.