Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 162

Military operations against Islamic rebels came to a standstill on September 1-2 in Kyrgyzstan’s Batken and Chon-Alai districts, amid growing indications of friction between the governments of Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. The Kyrgyz do not want Uzbekistan to use the rebellion as an opportunity for playing the role of regional leader. Accordingly, they have chosen to rely primarily on Russian, rather than Uzbek, military assistance. They also seem willing to go out of their way to please Japan–a key donor and investor country–by trying to save the rebel-held Japanese hostages. As a result, the Kyrgyz are following cautious military tactics in order to preserve the Japanese hostages’ lives, rather than giving in to Uzbek pressure for indiscriminate air strikes, which place the hostages and local villages at risk. Following the air strikes on a Kyrgyz village, the Kyrgyz government has ordered Uzbek aviation out of action, and seems content to keep it that way while appealing to Russia for air support. In the meantime, the number of officially registered refugees from the area has risen to 5,500.

On September 1-2, the insurgents named their terms for releasing their military and civilian captives, including the Japanese and the commander of Kyrgyz Internal Affairs Ministry troops. One communication from the rebels demanded free passage to Uzbekistan. Another demanded the release of Islamic militants imprisoned in Uzbekistan.

Kyrgyzstan’s First Deputy Prime Minister Boris Silaev and Defense Minister Esen Topoev reported yesterday in Bishkek on the results of discussions in Moscow with top Russian officials. The Russian military is about to airlift arms, ammunition, uniforms, night-vision devices, vehicles and helicopters to Kyrgyzstan. Moscow is considering Kyrgyzstan’s request for fighter-bomber aircraft.

President Askar Akaev yesterday issued the following guidelines to the army and security forces: seek a “bloodless release of all hostages in safe-and-sound condition;” isolate the rebel-controlled areas, stop any rebel attempts to advance into the interior of the country, and return fire if attacked. The first item implies negotiations and, potentially, a deal with the rebels. That prospect, as well as the reactive military strategy, are bound to displease Uzbekistan. The guidelines reflect Kyrgyzstan’s military weakness, and any change of strategy depends not just on the hostage situation but, primarily, on the timing and extent of Russian assistance and the Kyrgyz military’s ability to absorb it ahead of winter.

The Tajik government, meanwhile, lacks the means reliably to close the country’s border with Kyrgyzstan. The Kyrgyz government expressed concern yesterday that additional numbers of Islamic militants might cross that border to reinforce those already in Kyrgyzstan. The Uzbek government in turn is expressing its concern that the militants would use Kyrgyzstan’s Osh Region–where the Batken and Chon-Alai districts are located–as a direct corridor into Uzbekistan. The Osh Region has a substantial Uzbek population and has even, in Soviet times, been the scene of vibrant Muslim underground activities.

In Tashkent yesterday, Russia’s Defense Minister Igor Sergeev conferred with President Islam Karimov and Defense Minister Hikmatulla Tursunov. They agreed to create a crisis headquarters composed of Russian, Uzbek, Kyrgyz, Tajik and Kazakh staff officers in order to plan and coordinate a regional response to the crisis. Sergeev stated in clear terms that the situation can be handled within the framework of the CIS Collective Security Treaty. Because the Russian Defense Minister is fully aware that Uzbekistan abandoned that treaty earlier this year, his words amount to an invitation to Uzbekistan to rejoin it. A protracted crisis can clearly play into Russia’s hands, and Moscow may keep that consideration in mind when calibrating the scope and pace of its military assistance to Kyrgyzstan (Itar-Tass, Habar, Kyodo, AP, Reuters, September 1-2; see the Monitor, August 24-27, 31, September 1).

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