Dozens of followers of renegade Tajik Colonel Mahmud Khudoyberdiev are seeking legal residence in Uzbekistan, afraid to return to their home country where their former leader has long been a wanted man.
Two former fighters -- veterans of the Tajik Civil War -- told RFE/RL that many of Khudoyberdiev's "soldiers" are still registered in Uzbek Army units in the city of Angren and Jizzakh Province.
Many of the rebels who fought against Tajik forces in the 1990s have served in the Uzbek military, they said, since fleeing Tajikistan after their failed rebellion.
Until 2005, many of Khudoyberdiev's fighters were serving in an Uzbek Army unit in Ferghana Province, too, the men claimed, speaking on condition of anonymity over concerns about their security.
Contrary to rumors that he moved to Turkey in 2018, t he two men say Khudoyberdiev, 55, is still based in Uzbekistan and serves at a special army base in Jizzakh.
The men -- Tajik citizens of ethnic Uzbek origin -- are both in their 50s and said the age range of Khudoyberdiev's "soldiers" in Uzbekistan is late 40s to late 60s.
RFE/RL's cannot independently verify the men's claims.
Tashkent has never publicly confirmed Khudoyberdiev and his men were based in Uzbekistan, let alone acknowledge that they had joined the Uzbek armed forces.
But officials in Tajikistan believe the fugitive colonel and most of his soldiers and paramilitaries fled to Uzbekistan after what officials described as a failed attempt to overthrow the Tajik government in August 1997.
Left In Limbo
The two men, who spoke to our correspondent in Tashkent in early February, said many fighters took their families with them when they fled to Uzbekistan.
They said they were speaking on behalf of some 50 families who still haven't received a residency permit for Uzbekistan and feel like they have been abandoned despite having served in the Uzbek armed forces.
They said that, when Khudoyberdiev entered Uzbekistan he brought with him some 180 families made up of 250 people. Those numbers have since grown substantially.
Khudoyberdiev's fighters joined the Uzbek military and the security committee's border guard services, the men said, confirming lingering reports that the fugitive Tajik colonel has enjoyed Tashkent's trust and support.
The men rejected, however, claims that Khudoyberdiev's followers took part in the Uzbek Army clampdown on antigovernment protests in Andijon in May 2005.
About 100 of the ex-fighters have since received Uzbek citizenship, while others are still left in limbo with no residency permits, the men said. It is unclear why the others were not granted official status.
"For 22 years we have served the Uzbek armed forces and contributed to this country's military might," the two said, adding that their activities were coordinated by the Uzbek security services.
"We are not asking for medals and honors, we want documents allowing us to live and work legally in Uzbekistan," they added.
Many of Khudoyberdiev's men have grown children who also need legal status to study, work, travel, and get married.
The issue of Khudoyberdiev has always been a sore point in Tajik-Uzbek relations, which remained largely strained during the 27-year rule of Uzbek President Islam Karimov, who died in 2016.
Khudoyberdiev initially fought for the Tajik government against its Islamist-led opposition during the 1992-1997 civil war.
But by early 1996 he turned against the government and increasingly got involved in clashes against other pro-government militia groups.
In August 1997, the office of President Emomali Rahmon announced that the "mutinous colonel's group had been completely defeated" in a military operation in southern Tajikistan.
Khudoyberdiev and dozens of his supporters then reportedly sought refuge in Uzbekistan.
The colonel's last rebellion was in November 1998 when he raided several key government buildings in the northern province of Sughd.
Some 100 people were killed in an ensuing battle before Khudoyberdiev's forces retreated and government troops retook control of Sughd.
The Tajik government said at the time that Khudoyberdiev and his group had entered Sughd from Uzbekistan, a claim that Tashkent rejected.
Officials in Dushanbe say Uzbek authorities have never responded to Tajikistan's requests to extradite Khudoyberdiev.
Sources close to the Uzbek government told RFE/RL that handing over Khudoyberdiev to Tajikistan has never been an option for Uzbek authorities.
Among those who were staunchly opposed to such an extradition was Rustam Inoyatov, a powerful former security chief, a source in Tashkent said on February 14.
Too Old To Fight
Tajikistan, meanwhile, has reportedly detained and tried some 200 people allegedly linked to Khudoyberdiev.
Dushanbe insists a criminal case against the mutinous colonel remains open, accusing him of committing terrorist acts and a coup attempt.
In 2018, a Tajik official said authorities believed Khudoyberdiev had left Uzbekistan for Turkey sometime after Karimov's death.
"According to our information, he spends most of his time in medical facilities," said Iskandar Solehzoda, the Khatlon regional police chief in 2018.
Relations warmed between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan after President Shavkat Mirziyoev took office in Tashkent in late 2016.
"Khudoyberdiev or his [fighters] can no longer have any impact on the rapprochement between our countries," Solehzoda said.
The Tajik official added that many of Khudoyberdiev's men are approaching their 60s and "their age, at least, won't allow them to [fight] again."