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Almaty Fears Uighur Militants

Kazak commentators are divided over whether Uighur based in the country pose a serious threat to the authorities
By Aidar Kaliev

Kazakstan's intelligence services have warned that Islamic guerrillas from inside China may be plotting an attack in Almaty to avenge four comrades killed by police.

The warning has thrown the capital into panic. One city official, Svetlana Rozhkova, said the addresses of police officers, special forces personnel and prosecution staff involved in the battle with the guerrillas have been removed from official records.

The four who died in the September 28 gunfight with law enforcement officers were reportedly heavily armed with grenades and automatic weapons. They were wanted in connection with the killing two policemen several days before.

Officials identified the four as members of the Uighur Ozatlik Tashlakhty organization, which is battling to secure an independent state for Uighur Muslims in China's Sintszyan-Ugursk autonomous republic.

The Kazakstan National Security Committee said the guerrillas had intended to blow up Almaty's police headquarters.

However, a cloud of confusion hangs over the whole affair. Some Kazakstani commentators are questioning whether the "terrorist" threat is genuine or whether it is part of an official smokescreen.

Representatives of the 200,000-strong ethnic Uighur minority insist they pose no threat. Head of the minority community Fahad Hasanov said his people support the Almaty government.

Commentator Bakhyt Sariev believes that while Uighur guerrilla organisations may be based in Kazakstan, they do not endanger the government."It's unlikely that they would do anything to provoke the authorities," he said. "It's not in their interest to attract attention, they only want to use Kazakstan territory as a staging post."

Some experts estimate there are around four Uighur separatist organisations located inside Kazakstan, all of them plotting subversive activities against Chinese authorities in Sintszyan-Ugursk.

About the same number of organisations are operating in neighbouring Kyrgyzstan. The groups most often mentioned are the United National Revolutionary Front of Turkestan, the Organisation for the Liberation of Uygurstan and the International Committee for the Liberation of Turkestan and Yana Ayat.

A representative of the Russia-China Institute, Alibek Sartaev, said the groups should not be underestimated. "Back in 1997, when the Chinese authorities suppressed disturbances among the Uighur population, a radical group of Uighur youth living in Kazakstan, sent a protest letter to the United Nations General Secretary Kofi Annan. The letter warned that a radical struggle would be launched against authorities in China."

Another expert, Zhusipov Bakhyt, warned that Uighur guerrillas might attempt to undermine relations between Astana and Beijing by harming Chinese citizens in Kazakstan. "You can't discount the possibility," he said.

Bakhyt cited as an example recent events in neighbouring Kyrgyzstan where attacks on Chinese citizens were blamed by law enforcement agencies on members of the Uighur Ozatlik Tashlakhty.

Kazakstan was the last of the Central Asian republics to break away from the former Soviet Union. The country is full of ethnic minorities, with Muslim Kazaks making up only 43 per cent of the 15 million population. It is a place where ultra-nationalist sentiments are easily ignited.

A representative of the Kazakstan Foreign Ministry, who wished to remain anonymous, commented, "It should be remembered that the aim of the Uighur separatists is to create an independent Uighur state, not only on the territory of Sintszyan-Ugursk but also in parts of Kazakstan."

Another possible version of events is that China and certain political forces within Kazakstan find it profitable to play the anti-Uighur card.

According to political observer Kasym Zhanmurzin, there are reports that the Chinese authorities are supporting some bogus Uighur guerrilla groups in order to discredit the entire anti-Chinese Uighur movement.

Yusupbek Mukhlis, leader of the International Committee for the Liberation of Eastern Turkestan, is convinced the shoot-out in Almaty was organised by Beijing.

At the same time, another political analyst, Daniyar Adambalinov, suggests the current preoccupation with threats posed by "terrorist" organisations (and not only Uighur groups) strengthens the Kazak regime.

"It leads to greater expenditure on security which strengthens the hand of the state," Adambalinov pointed out.

Aidar Kaliev is an Almaty-based political journalist