Publication: Fortnight in Review Volume: 6 Issue: 17

In Kyrgyzstan, the IMU rebels used the same penetration route they had in August 1999. At that time, they were attempting to reach Uzbekistan’s Ferghana Valley via Kyrgyzstan. This year, however, the incursion into Kyrgyzstan provides a sideshow to the main rebel operation, now underway in Uzbekistan itself, albeit not in Ferghana. The insurgents probably aim to expose Kyrgyzstan’s vulnerability and to draw Uzbek forces into assisting the neighboring country. Such a dispersal of Uzbek military resources could facilitate the mission of IMU’s force in Uzbekistan.

The rebel detachment in Kyrgyzstan operates mainly in the Batken Region along the border with Tajikistan. It seemed initially to have numbered several hundred, but its actual size remains unclear because the rebels tend to operate in autonomous groups. The Kyrgyz government and military had anticipated a rebel incursion in Batken and made elaborate preparations to repulse it. Nevertheless, the military suffered painful losses before stopping the rebels and pushing them back toward the Tajik border. The hostilities revealed some of the same problems–lack of night-vision devices, for example–which plagued the Kyrgyz forces last year. The rebels seem to have these devices and to exploit that advantage in nighttime attacks.

The insurgents also entered the Sokh district, an Uzbek enclave within Kyrgyzstan near the border between these two countries. One rebel unit seized two groups of German, Russian, Ukrainian and Uzbek alpinists and held them for two weeks as hostages, but let them go free when government troops drew near. The alpinists reported that the rebels were extremely young–an indication that they may have grown up in the refugee camps of Uzbek Islamist expatriates.

From Sokh and Batken, the insurgents have made forays northward into the Jalalabad Region of Kyrgyzstan. That region had been well out of rebel reach during last year’s hostilities. Kyrgyz and Uzbek forces have conducted “joint activities” in the Jalalabad Region. Official communiques do not specify whether each force operated on its own side of the border, or whether Uzbek troops have actually crossed over into Kyrgyzstan. That border is in any case poorly demarcated and even undemarcated on some portions. Prior to the current crisis, Uzbek internal affairs and border troops had often felt free to cross over into Kyrgyz territory without official Kyrgyz consent.

In the final analysis, the Kyrgyz task force of army, internal affairs and state security troops is containing the rebels through its sheer size. President Askar Akaev, inspecting the combat zone, has pronounced himself satisfied with the troops’ performance and awarded medals to top commanders. The government’s communiques speak of “mopping-up operations” and preventive mining of mountain passes along the Tajik-Kyrgyz and Kyrgyz-Uzbek borders.