Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 165

Kyrgyz troops clashed in the Batken district yesterday with a guerrilla group which had entered Kyrgyzstan from Tajikistan. The crossing confirmed the Tajik government’s inability to control its side of the Kyrgyz-Tajik border. Tajik opposition (UTO) forces, which once controlled that area, have recently been absorbed for the most part into government troops, while some diehard elements joined the Uzbek expatriate militants who crossed last month from Tajikistan into Kyrgyzstan in the apparent hope of breaking through to Uzbekistan. The disarmament of Tajik mainstream opposition forces, poorly planned and carried out under duress, has weakened the moderate UTO leadership while unleashing the radical Islamist fringe. That Moscow-inspired blunder has been quick to boomerang against Kyrgyzstan and may produce even wider ripples in the region.

Interviewed on Russian Public Television yesterday, Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev portrayed the events in his country as part of an international Islamic-terrorist conspiracy against Russsia and the Central Asian countries, “from Dagestan to Kyrgyzstan.” Akaev claimed that the guerrilla force which has attacked Kyrgyzstan includes Afghans, Arabs and “even Chechens” in addition to Uzbeks and Tajiks, and that the fighters were trained at camps in Afghanistan, Tajikistan and the North Caucasus. Akaev offered no substantiation for these allegations, which clearly overstate the strength and international backing of the modest force which has struck his vulnerable country. His presentation appeared designed to justify the setbacks of his military and to spur Moscow into providing more military assistance. He pleaded for “Russian support in any form,” including tactical air support but did not mention that Kyrgyzstan has no combat pilots of its own and that Russian air support would consequently entail the participation of Russian airmen in combat.

In Tashkent, President Islam Karimov also dwelt on the “international” composition and backing of the guerrilla force during a special presentation for foreign diplomats accredited to Uzbekistan. But Karimov stopped short of calling for Russian support, urging instead a “coordinated Central Asian response”–as did his National Security Council Secretary Mirakbar Rahmankulov in a televised address. Rahmankulov observed that the conflict in southern Kyrgyzstan is acquiring a “protracted character.” In an unusual bout of recrimination, Rahmankulov and Defense Minister Hikmatulla Tursunov faulted “the Kyrgyz leadership,” the president himself and the security services for a slow and inadequate response to the challenge.

Kyrgyz officials meanwhile are vowing “never to sit down for talks with terrorists” and rule out any “official negotiations” toward the release of hostages. At the same time, senior civilian and military officials admit to pursuing “unofficial discussions” with the rebels, both directly and through mediators. The channels of such discussions have multiplied in the last two days. Mediators include village elders in the rebel-controlled area and, in recent days, Tursunbek Akunov, chairman of the Human Rights Movement of Kyrgyzstan, who is shuttling between the authorities and the rebels. The rebel commander, identified as Zubair ibn-Abdurahman, is exchanging written notes with Bishkek authorities through the intermediaries.

Kyrgyz security officials have “unofficially” contacted with rebel commanders in an effort to launch a negotiating process–and perhaps to gain time for bringing more troops to the area. The commander of Kyrgyz troops in the conflict theater, Major-General Abdygul Chotbaev, accepted a rebel proposal to begin negotiations yesterday in the no-man’s-land. Chotbaev did arrive at the appointed place, but rebel leaders failed to appear, sending only an intermediary instead. The insurgents meanwhile are communicating directly–by fax in at least one case–with the presidential office and government in Bishkek. They demand a corridor for free passage–with their arms and the hostages–to the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border. The Kyrgyz government rules this out, but Uzbekistan is taking no chances. Uzbek troops began concentrating yesterday on the border with Kyrgyzstan (Itar-Tass, ORT, KyrgyzHabar, Uzbek TV, Kyodo, AP, Reuters, September 7-8; see the Monitor, August 24-27, September 1, 3, 7).