Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Batken Conflict Returns

For the second year in succession guerrillas break into the Batken region in southern Kyrgyzstan
By Turat Akimov

Once again August has brought guerrilla activity to Kyrgyzstan's Batken region. Twice in five days guerrillas operating out of the mountains along Tajik-Kyrgyz border sought to break south into the Batken. But Kyrgyz military sources believe this year's activity is more complex and the guerrillas have more serious objectives in mind.


Major General Askar Mameev, deputy secretary to the Kyrgyz Security Council, said six Kyrgyz soldiers had died in fighting with the guerrillas on August 17 bringing the total number of casualties to 24. A further two people are missing and a group of American mountaineers had been rescued from the rebels, he said. A group of six German and six Russian mountaineers were also rescued on August 15.


During last year's incursions into the same region Islamic rebels, thought to be members of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, IMU, issued a statement declaring war against leadership of Uzbek President Islam Karimov. They proclaimed their aim was to establish an Islamic State in Uzbekistan and free all their supporters imprisoned after Tashkent bombings in February 1999.


The rebels broke into the Batken in August 1999, taking several people hostage, and demanded passage into Uzbekistan.


The recent fighting is thought to have trapped 89 villagers from Samarkandek in high mountains. Nothing has been heard from the community in over a week.


Initial reports on August 15 claiming the Kyrgyz military had driven the guerrillas back across the Tajik frontier to the north of the Batken salient proved premature. That same night the rebels reappeared over the Tajik-Kyrgyz frontier prompting renewed fighting in the Kyryk-Bylak area, around 30 kilometres west of the Toro pass - the same location for the initial incursion on August 11.


Mameev said tension remained very high and that is was difficult to say how many rebels were still in the area.


Intelligence sources claim another group of around 800 guerrillas, concentrated at Jergatal in Tajikistan, may attempt to break into the Batken salient from the south. Meanwhile reports claim reinforcements are also gathered in the Kaldar area of Afghanistan, close to the Tajik border, poised to move towards the Fergana valley.


Kyrgyz Defence Minister Esen Topoev is in Batken to personally command the republic's military response to the incursions. Topoev said on August 15 Kyrgyz forces under the command of Colonel Asylbek Ormokoev had captured quantities of arms belonging to the rebels. The minister also claimed the fighters belonged to the IMU.


"There are Uzbeks, Tartars and Bashkirs among the fighters," Topoev said. "There are also snipers fighting against us, who may be from Russia and the Ukraine. We have also noted Chechens, Indians, Pakistanis, Afghans and Arabs among their field commanders."


Military intelligence sources claim the guerrillas include a number of women snipers - a new phenomenon in Kyrgyzstan.


Colonel Mamat Teshebaev, military commissar in the Lyailyak region, said the first encounters between the guerrillas and government forces took place near Ravat village in the Kindik region - an area in the Andygen mountain range close to the Tajik border.


Teshebaev said a decision was promptly taken to evacuate people from the nearby mountain areas of Ozgorush, Too-Djailoo and Sarkent.


According to the colonel, the guerrillas' objective appeared to be to break through Kyrygyz territory to Vorukh and Chorku enclaves - officially Uzbek territory, but home to approximately 38,000 Tajiks. Kyrgyz generals believe the guerrillas will attempt to break out towards Chon-Alai through the Bok-Bashy pass in the direction of Osh - a repeat of last year's attack. From there the guerrillas would try to enter the Tashkent district in Uzbekistan via Chatkal and Ala-Bukin, Teshebaev believes.


Military sources suspect the guerrillas are using old Soviet maps, but Teshebaev said they were not ruling out the possibility foreign mountaineers may have been used to gather topographical photographs necessary to draw up detailed charts.


Kyrgyz Interior Minister Omurbek Kutuev said there is evidence some local inhabitants are working as guides for the guerrillas. Some suspects have been detained, he added.


Additional military units, mostly Scorpion special forces, have been sent to the mountainous areas of Lyailayk, Katran, Isfara and Sumbulin to support the rural administrations' efforts to suppress rebel activity in their areas.


Horses, guides and experienced hunters have been mobilised to aid the military's attempts to close in behind the guerrillas and seal of mountain paths. Border posts have been set up along sections of road close to the Tajik border at Isfan, Korgon, Ai-Kol, Deinos, Kok-Tash and Katran.


The Batken incursions combined with guerrilla activity in southern Uzbekistan have prompted co-operation between the Kyrgyz, Tajik and Uzbek governments. Senior security officials from the republics agreed at a meeting in Khodjend, Tajikistan to establish a joint operation centre to seek out and crush rebel groups on each of the countries' territories.


General Bolot Djanuzakov, Secretary of the Kyrgyz Security Council, said one of the guerrillas' main sources of income comes from organisations backed by Osama bin Laden, the Saudi millionaire blamed by the United States for the World Trade Centre bombing among other attacks. Bin Laden is believed to be in Afghanistan.


Djanuzakov said the Kyrgyz government had evidence Juma Namangani, a prominent IMU leader, was using two helicopters provided by the Afghanistan Taleban. He also said IMU fighters had received military and sabotage training at bases inside Afghanistan and Pakistan.


The guerrillas' main aim, Djanuzakov believes, is to expand drug trafficking routes to the north through Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. The routes through Batken are the shortest and, until last year's fighting, the least guarded. According to Djanuzakov's sources, one and a half tonnes of heroin has been amassed in the Tavildara region in southeast Tajikistan. The area is also thought to be home to Juma Namangani.


Djanuzakov therefore thinks it possible the Batken activity could be a distracting manoeuvre to enable the drug traffickers to move their goods unmolested. The general also believes the upsurge in IMU activity is partly payback for the money, facilities and equipment provided by "international terrorist centres", mostly in Afghanistan. The incursions into Batken and southern Uzbekistan, he said, aimed to destabilise the situation across Central Asia.


The Tajik government, Djanuzakov said, had promised to prevent a repeat of last year's events, which left 27 Kyrgyz dead. But the Kyrgyz government has accused Dushanbe of reneging on its commitments to contain the guerrillas. Djanuzakov criticised the Tajik government for refusing to permit Kyrgyz and Uzbek forces to enter Tajikistan in pursuit of the retreating rebels.


Russia, Kazakstan, Uzbekistan and China had provided financial assistance to Kyrgyzstan, Djanuzakov added.


Turat Akimov is regular IWPR contributor.