On July 23, Russia’s ORT television asserted that numerous militants of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), purportedly commanded by Juma Namangani, were gathering on the Tajik side of the Tajik-Kyrgyz border, ready to attack Kyrgyzstan at any moment. The state-controlled Russian network advanced that prediction in a reportage from Kyrgyzstan’s Batken Region, scene of the IMU’s incursions in 1999 and 2000 from Tajik territory.
On July 24, Kyrgyz Internal Affairs Minister Tashtemir Aitbaev dismissed that prediction on the grounds that the insurgents would be no match for Kyrgyzstan’s armed forces this year; that several CIS countries stand ready to help if necessary; and that the rebel leaders are aware of all this. A Kyrgyz Defense Ministry spokesman, while similarly dismissing ORT’s assertions, conceded that small groups of Islamist militants stood poised on the Tajik side of the border. On July 25, Tajikistan’s Security Council Secretary Amirkul Azimov indignantly denied that IMU or any Uzbek opposition militants are using Tajik territory. According to Azimov, ORT’s broadcast “only goes to show that somebody wants artificially to create hot spots.” As it turned out, each one of these officials made a valid point.
On July 25-26, gunmen presumed to belong to the IMU crossed the border from Tajikistan and twice attacked a military outpost in the Batken Region, some twelve kilometers inside Kyrgyzstan. The Defense Ministry reported that two soldiers were wounded and two rebels were killed in the nighttime firefight. Army and border troops are now combing the area near the Gemush Pass that connects Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.
The attack’s timing is interesting on three counts. It followed ORT’s prediction as if on cue. It came the day after Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev, on an official visit to Bishkek, declared his solidarity with Kyrgyzstan. And it began a few hours after President Askar Akaev’s departure from Bishkek on vacation. Kyrgyz officials had fully expected the IMU to renew this summer its attempts to reach the Ferghana Valley via Batken. They made serious and well-publicized military preparations, but could only speculate about the timing of a possible incursion.
In Tashkent, a senior Defense Ministry official told Russian journalists on condition of anonymity that Uzbekistan is offering its military support to Kyrgyzstan. The Uzbek command proposes “not merely to repel the attacks, but to carry out preventive strikes on the militants’ bases and terrorist camps spotted in the contiguous territory”–that is, on the Tajik side of the border. Uzbekistan had taken this position also in 1999 and 2000 in response to the IMU’s incursions. It did carry out a few, ineffectual air strikes, reserved the right to mount hot-pursuit operations inside Tajikistan, and urged Kyrgyzstan to carry out such operations itself. Tajikistan and its protector Russia oppose Uzbek military moves on Tajik territory, however. For its part, the Russian military in Tajikistan never interfered with the IMU’s use of that country’s territory for attacking Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan.
Officials are now once again guessing whether the latest attack presages a rebel operation akin to those of the last two years, or whether the ample military preparations already undertaken this year in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan would ultimately deter the rebels this year (Kabar, Kyrgyz Radio, Asia Plus, Itar-Tass, July 24-26; see the Monitor, May 7, June 13, 26).
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