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Uzbekistan: Lives On The Line At Border

Thousands of people cross the Uzbek border daily to visit friends and relatives, while small traders and smugglers turn a profit off the price differences of goods. But the crossing is growing more and more risky. RFE/RL reports on the latest incidents occurring along Uzbekistan's increasingly dangerous borders.

Prague, 12 November 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Kuandyk Syrlybaev died early this month while attempting to smuggle bales of cotton out of Uzbekistan's central Dzhizak region into neighboring Kazakhstan. According to official reports, Syrlybaev died in an automobile accident while trying to elude Uzbek border guards.

But Abay Boybulatov from the local Ezgulik human rights group told RFE/RL that Syrlybaev died after being tortured along with three other traders by the border guards. "There were four [ethnic Kazakhs with Uzbek citizenship]. The border guards caught them and then beat them. Kuandyk Syrlybaev, who was strong, told the guards to arrest them rather than beat them. But the guards beat them again," he said. "They continued to beat him without knowing he was already dead."

Uzbek border guards have been blamed for a number of deaths in recent months. Last month, near the Kyrgyz village of Chekabad, Uzbek border guards shot and killed two Uzbek citizens and injured one during a smuggling incident. A Kyrgyz citizen, whose presence was described as coincidental, was also injured. Similarly, in June a Kyrgyz citizen was shot dead in an altercation with Uzbek border guards, prompting Kyrgyzstan to complain of Uzbek security forces' "excessive aggression and unfriendliness."

Uzbek authorities are aiming to protect domestic producers by limiting trade with neighboring Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan. The Uzbek Interior Ministry and the country's law-enforcement agencies have been ordered to take harsh measures against cotton smugglers to keep products crucial to state revenues from being spirited into neighboring countries. This policy led to last January's closure of the bridge connecting Uzbek territory to the Kyrgyz town of Karasuu in the Ferghana Valley.

Since then, dozens of Kyrgyz citizens have drowned in the river, an Interior Ministry official told Agence France Presse. Most of them were eking out a living by helping traders to cross the river using makeshift bridges.

With borders not clearly defined or marked, mine fields laid along Uzbekistan's rural border areas with Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are also putting local populations at risk.

Four teenagers from the Tajik village of Chilgazi in the Isfara district gathering firewood last week inadvertently crossed over into Uzbekistan and stepped on an antipersonnel mine. One was killed and the three others were injured. When the father of the dead boy rushed to the spot, he was also killed by a land mine.

The Tajik Foreign Ministry has sent a note to the Uzbek Embassy in Dushanbe appealing to the Uzbek authorities to take the necessary measures to prevent further such incidents.

Parviz Mavlonkulov is coordinator of the Tajik Center for Land Mine Problems. "Tajiks and Uzbeks are not enemies and land mines along the border cannot provide Uzbeks with security," he said. "These mines kill only innocent people. Unfortunately, Uzbeks don't understand that."

According to the center, 60 Tajik civilians have been killed by mines on the Tajik-Uzbek border since 2000, when Uzbekistan unilaterally mined its mountainous borders to prevent the extremist Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan from entering its territory.

Grazing animals are also frequent victims of land mines in regions where the loss of one cow can mean a family goes hungry for the winter.

(Khurmat Babadjanov from RFE/RL's Uzbek Service contributed to this report.)