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Civilian Takes Charges Of Uzbek Army

Uzbekistan appoints a civilian defence minister as part of sweeping military reforms
By Galina Zhukova

The Uzbek government's on-going reform of the armed forces recently broke new ground when a civilian was appointed defence minister.

Physicist and member of the Uzbek Academy of Sciences Kadyr Gulyamov replaced Lieutenant-General Yuri Agzamov on September 29, as part of plans to "establish civilian control over military structures within the state", said National Security Council Secretary Mirakbar Rakhmankulov.

Under the new regime, the defence ministry is expected to play a more administrative role, while senior army commanders will take charge of military operations.

The latter will assume command of all of Uzbekistan's armed units including defence ministry troops, border guards, interior ministry special forces and special units of the emergency ministry.

Rakhmankulov said the reforms had become necessary to ensure Uzbekistan was fully prepared to fend off any acts of aggression. "We can't exclude the possibility that there could be a repeat of attempts by armed groups to enter Uzbek territory," he said referring to this summer's incursions by Islamic militants. One such attack got within 100 kilometres of the capital Tashkent.

Senior military officials insist the reforms are purely defensive in nature. Uzbek President Islam Karimov recently boasted the republic possessed "the strongest army in Central Asia" insisting though that "this doesn't mean that we intend to fight beyond our own borders. As president I tell you: our soldiers won't be fighting in Kabul."

The military reforms have affected Soviet-style regimental structures. The basic fighting unit now consists of 14 soldiers - three such groups forming a platoon equipped with artillery, transport, tanks and flame-throwers.

The republic has been divided into five military districts. Two or three battalions plus their equipment and technical backup are stationed in each district.

Detachments of "rangers", based on the United States model, have also been formed. Two such battalions are now stationed along Uzbekistan's southern frontier. These troops proved very effective against the Islamic guerrillas this summer.

In addition, along the Amu-Darya River separating Uzbekistan and Afghanistan, a special force of marines, including detachments trained in building pontoons, has been created. They are also equipped with amphibious artillery vehicles.

Uzbekistan has sought to broaden the frontiers of military co-operation. For example Tashkent and Beijing recently signed an agreement on military-technical cooperation. And after a visit by Agzamov, China supplied a shipment of sniper rifles and flak-jackets.

Perhaps more significantly, while in China the Uzbek military delegation met representatives from Turkey, a key NATO member state. In a subsequent visit to Tashkent in October, the Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ismail Cem, discussed the supply of military equipment from alliance countries.

The Uzbek military has opted for NATO-approved helmets and boots. An Uzbek-Russian joint venture has already begun manufacturing the new footwear.

But relations with Russia remain closest. Before he was replaced by Gulyamov, Agzamov signed an agreement in Moscow setting the agenda for military contact between the two countries. The agreement envisages over 20 joint projects.

In particular, Moscow will help Tashkent upgrade its air defence systems. Uzbekistan's armed forces use Russian military helicopters and other aviation equipment and a project is underway to set-up a joint enterprise to oversee maintenance work. Similar arrangements are in place with the Ukraine for the repair of armoured vehicles.

Russia is also to provide military advisors to train Uzbekistan's snipers and anti-aircraft defence units. Seventy Uzbek officers began training at Russian military academies on September 1.

Although overtly pushing a policy of peaceful non-interference in the affairs of neighbouring states, Uzbekistan clearly wishes to send out a signal to any would-be aggressor that attempts to destabilise the situation within the republic will be met with considerable force.

Galina Zhukova is a freelance journalist in Tashkent

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