Bishkek Landmine Fears

Kyrgyzstan claims Uzbek landmines are endangering the lives of frontier communities.

Bishkek Landmine Fears

Kyrgyzstan claims Uzbek landmines are endangering the lives of frontier communities.

Kyrgyzstan is threatening to remove landmines laid by Uzbekistan along the border between the two countries. Bishkek says the explosives, apparently intended to deter Muslim guerrilla incursions into Uzbek territory, are killing Kyrgyz peasants and their livestock.

The ordnance is dotted around the Batken region of southern Kyrgyzstan, at the point at which the country's borders meet Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. The frontiers are in many places loosely defined, and Tashkent insists the explosives were laid on its own territory.

Tashkent opposes any plan to remove the ordnance. Its experts warn that anyone trying to clear the mines may well blow themselves up unless they have detailed minefield maps. Any unilateral Kyrgyz move to clear them would inflame tension between the two countries.

But the Kyrgyz authorities have lost patience with the steady toll of mine victims. Around a dozen of the explosives have been detonated since 1999, killing one shepherd and badly injuring three other people. Scores of cattle, sheep and goats have been lost.

The first victim of the "mine war" was Avazbek Baltabaev, a young man whose right arm was badly injured by an explosion at Ak-Turpak in the Batken region. He stepped on a mine while herding goats from a remote pasture back to his home village.

"My younger brother and I were shepherding some 25 of our goats," recalled Avazbek. "We were about 15 kilometres away from home when I heard this terrible rumbling noise in front of us.

"A cloud of dust went up. About eight goats were killed instantly. The rest of them bolted towards the Uzbek border. In a little while I felt a sharp pain in my right arm,

which I hadn't felt before because of shock.

"Blood was gushing out of my right forearm. I pressed a rag to my wound, and ran home as fast as I could. They took me to the municipal hospital for a surgery."

Avazbek no longer herds any cattle and his fellow villagers dare not use the high-risk area as pasture.

On April 23 this year, a mine went off in Chon-Tokoy, killing shepherd Ulugbek Tolobaev along with several dozen sheep and goats from his herd.

One of the men who found the body and brought it home, Toktomat Djusupbekov, told us, "I was walking home from evening prayers when I heard people talking about some mine explosion on the border.

"We got in a car and drove towards the border. It was pitch-dark, so we called: 'Ulugbek!' There was no reply. We stumbled around till we came across Uzbek watch-towers.

"We couldn't go any further, so we decided to spend the night right there. At the crack of dawn, we saw Ulugbek's body lying there amid dead sheep and goats."

One of Ulugbek's elder brothers, ex-member of the Kyrgyz parliament, Amirakul Tolobayev, was indignant, "Kyrgyz and Uzbeks are no strangers to each other. We've been good neighbours for centuries. Uzbek representatives came here to express their condolences, but I told them, 'What you guys are doing is an abomination'

"They just stood there with heads bowed. 'Those mines aren't against Kyrgyz - they're against Tajiks,' they told me. Well, we know this land inside out. The place where Ulugbek was blown up is 350 meters inside Kyrgyz territory, and has nothing to do with Tajiks. And what have Tajiks done to deserve this anyway? "

The residents of Chon-Kara fear for their lives. Three other mines have recently exploded in the neighbourhood. For decades, at the first sign of spring grass, the locals would drive their herds to the rich alpine pastures at Kodjo-Ashkan.

The Uzbek president, Islam Karimov, has appeared on national television several times reiterating that the mines are on his side of the border. But Kyrgyz parliamentarians are increasingly lobbying for the mines to be defused. They note that they have been banned by a series of international conventions.

Batken governor, Mamat Aibalaev, has promised that minesweeping would commence as soon as the Kyrgyz government gives the go-ahead, declaring that the Uzbeks should be held responsible for damage to local communities.

But Tashbolot Baltabayev, a member of the Kyrgyz parliament from the Batken region, suggests there's little chance of Uzbekistan paying any compensation.

No one has forgotten the tragedy of the borderland village Kara-Teyit in the neighbouring Osh Region. In 1999, Uzbek pilots flying a combat mission against Islamic militants bombed the village by mistake killing a few Kyrgyz citizens and destroying millions of dollars worth of property.

When repeated diplomatic appeals for compensation were ignored, Kyrgyzstan had to rebuild the village.

Sultan Jumagulov is a regular IWPR contributor

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