On October 25, the Uzbek Islamist guerrillas operating in the Tajik-Kyrgyz border area handed over their main trump card–the four Japanese mining engineers whom they had seized, along with some Kyrgyz officers and civilians, on August 23 in Kyrgyzstan’s Osh region. The Japanese arrived yesterday in Tokyo via Kyrgyzstan. This outcome defuses, at least partly and temporarily, a major regional crisis which had enmired Japan as well. Tokyo’s top priority was to secure a peaceful, negotiated release of its citizens, for which purpose it set up a Japanese interagency crisis staff in Bishkek. Japan’s priority conflicted with Uzbekistan’s preference for massive use of force against the rebels, regardless of risks to the hostages’ lives or indeed to Kyrgyz and Tajik villagers in the guerrillas’ area of operations.
The Kyrgyz government, resisting Uzbek pressure, followed the cautious tactics Tokyo advocated. Japan quietly used its leverage as a leading donor to and investor in Kyrgyzstan. The mining engineers–three of them from the Mitsui concern and one from the Overseas Mineral Resources Corporation–were developing a gold-mining project in Kyrgyzstan, backed by the Japanese government’s Metal Mining Agency and Export-Import Bank. Gold is the main mineral asset of the otherwise resource-poor Kyrgyzstan. President Askar Akaev, in an on-the-record telephone conversation with Japanese Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi following the release of the hostages, hinted at Kyrgyzstan’s guiding considerations: “Our promise to resolve the case has been kept. Please believe us that Kyrgyzstan is a country in which Japanese can safely work.”
The insurgents, pushed into Tajikistan by the Kyrgyz military in mid-October, released their captives–including Major-General Anarbek Shamkeev, commander of Kyrgyzstan’s Internal Affairs Ministry troops–in piecemeal fashion and in return for foodstuffs and winter clothing. The Uzbek rebel leaders Juma Namangani and Tahir Yuldash–who top President Islam Karimov’s wanted list of accused terrorists–ultimately agreed to release the Japanese after negotiations with Kyrgyz official and semi-official representatives. President Askar Akaev’s human rights commissioner Tursunbai Bakiruulu, state security officials and–in the negotiating endgame–parliamentary deputy Baiaman Erkinbaev were the main emissaries from Bishkek. Erkinbaev, a native of the Osh Region, is prominent in the cross-border trade in that Kyrgyz area, sandwiched between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.
The negotiators steadfastly resisted the rebels’ demands for weapons and free passage to Uzbekistan through either Kyrgyzstan or Afghanistan. Tokyo and Bishkek officially deny reports that the Kyrgyz government had paid US$2 million as ransom for the release of the Japanese hostages. The denials sound less than convincing.
The Tajik government and United Tajik Opposition (UTO) leaders jointly pleaded with the Uzbek rebels to release the hostages. Beyond their political differences, the government and opposition are equally interested in denying Uzbekistan a rationale for attacking the Uzbek rebels on Tajikistan’s territory. The UTO’s distinguished former commander, Mirzo Zio–now a Tajik general and Minister for Emergency Situations–flew to the rebel sanctuary in Jirgatal in the company of government officials to implore that the hostages be freed. Zio, moreover, is said to have offered a monetary ransom on Dushanbe’s behalf. On October 25, even as the Japanese hostages were being flown by helicopter to Kyrgyzstan, President Imomali Rahmonov’s Security Council Secretary Amirkul Azimov bravely issued an ultimatum to the rebels to release the hostages by October 27.
Kyrgyz military and security forces officially report having lost twenty-six killed in the six weeks of low-intensity fighting with the rebels. The rebel losses would appear to be lower; government forces have, in any case, been unable to document them.
Akaev and his Prime Minister Amangeldy Muraliev, in Moscow on October 25-26 for a meeting of the CIS Customs Union, discussed Central Asia’s and Kyrgyzstan’s security problems in a series of meetings with Russia’s President Boris Yeltsin, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, Defense Minister Igor Sergeev and the General Staff’s international cooperation chief, Colonel-General Leonid Ivashov. Publicly at least, Akaev carefully toed the Kremlin’s line on Chechnya while seeking Russian technical assistance to the Kyrgyz military in the common “antiterrorist” cause. Kyrgyzstan had desperately sought such assistance since late August, but received only a trickle of it.
Putin yesterday called for urgent steps, “now more than ever, to turn the CIS Collective Security Treaty into a reality.” As part of that effort, a command-and-staff exercise began yesterday in Bishkek with the participation of Russian, Uzbek, Kazakh, Tajik and Kyrgyz officers. The Uzbeks are involved in spite of their official abandonment of the CIS Collective Security Treaty earlier this year. The exercise is designed to practice coordinated actions in response to regional security threats–presumably from Islamic fundamentalist groups. The Uzbek rebels’ intrusion into Kyrgyzstan serves as the main scenario for the exercise. Putin and Sergeev in Moscow, as well as the treaty participants, predict that rebel incursions are likely to recur in the spring. The rebels will probably be content to spend the winter in their sanctuary in the mountains of northern Tajikistan, beyond the reach of Dushanbe or the Uzbek military (Kyodo, Bishkek Radio, Dushanbe Radio, Itar-Tass, October 25-26; see the Monitor, August 24-31, September 1, 3, 7, 9, 14, 21, 24, 27, 29, October 5, 12, 14, 20; The Fortnight in Review, September 24).
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