Prague, 21 July 2003 (RFE/RL) -- A number of Kyrgyz citizens continue to be held in China, apparently as collateral in cross-border business schemes.
Ruslan Kazakbaev, a top official in the Kyrgyz Foreign Ministry, said some 40 Kyrgyz citizens are being held in neighboring China. The Kyrgyz border service puts the number of Kyrgyz being held at around 100.
According to Kazakbaev, the Kyrgyz nationals are the friends or relatives of private tradesmen, who are being kept by Chinese businessmen for unpaid debts. "These people went to China to buy goods for tens of thousand dollars. Some of them don't have that amount of money, so instead of the money, they leave one of their relatives or friends as collateral. We estimate that there are around 35 to 40 people being held hostage," he said.
Kyrgyz tradesmen leave their friends or relatives behind voluntarily, hoping they can pay their debts once they resell their goods in Kyrgyzstan. However, some of them cannot raise the money, and their friends or relatives spend months and sometimes several years in captivity. Their passports are often confiscated, and they are kept as virtual prisoners in the homes of the Chinese businessmen, or in cheap lodgings.
Kazakbaev said they have no reports that the Kyrgyz nationals are being mistreated. Officials from Kyrgyz consulates in China say they have visited some of the hostages and found them well.
The Kyrgyz Foreign Ministry said this practice has been going on for at least three years and was discussed during Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev's visit to China last year.
The issue resurfaced last week when Kyrgyz border guards at the Torugart border pass detained three escaped hostages, including Yntymak Moldobaev, a 25-year-old Kyrgyz tradesman who had been kept in China since 2001. His relatives had not returned to China to release him. Moldobaev escaped after spending more than two years in captivity.
Cholponbek Turusbekov, a commander of Kyrgyz border troops, told RFE/RL that he believes that escaped hostages should not be punished as criminals. "From our point of view, these people are not criminals. They haven't done anything wrong, anything against [the interests] of our country. When our borders guards wanted to detain them, they showed no resistance. I have asked our authorities to release them with an administrative punishment for illegally crossing the border," Turusbekov said.
Kyrgyzstan and China share an 860-kilometer border with several border passes. For thousands of Kyrgyz -- who have faced widespread unemployment and poverty since the collapse of the Soviet Union -- private trade with Chinese businessmen is the only source of income. The Kyrgyz tradesmen travel to China on buses and trucks to acquire goods from China, which they then resell in Kyrgyzstan.
A visa-free travel system, which ended last month, had been a contributing factor to the flourishing business between Kyrgyz and Chinese tradesmen. Besides, many Chinese tradesmen in the neighboring Xinjiang-Uighur and Kashgar regions of China speak Kyrgyz or Uighur, which is close to the Kyrgyz language.
Most of the Kyrgyz wholesale dealers sell their Chinese goods in Kyrgyzstan's two main markets -- Dordoi bazaar in Bishkek and Karasuu bazaar in the southern province of Osh, or distribute them among retailers.
Many ordinary Kyrgyz prefer to buy affordable Chinese-made clothes. For example, a pair of Chinese-made shoes costs $5 or $6, while other shops sell Turkish-made shoes for $40 to $50. A Chinese-made shirt can be purchased for $2 to $3 in Karasuu, while the price for other shirts is often $15 to $20 in other shops. The average salary in Kyrgyzstan is around $50 a month.
Many Kyrgyz believe that private trade -- or so-called "shopping tours" -- will go on between the two countries, despite the abolition of the visa-free travel system or the ongoing hostage crisis.
(Tynchtykbek Tchoroev of RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service contributed to this report.)