Dushanbe Alarmed Over IMU Activity

The spectre of the IMU has returned to haunt the Tajik government

Dushanbe Alarmed Over IMU Activity

The spectre of the IMU has returned to haunt the Tajik government

The authorities in Dushanbe have dispatched a special commission to eastern Tajikistan to investigate fresh sightings of Uzbek Islamic militants in the region.

Disturbing reports claim that several hundred fighters from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, IMU, have crossed the border from Afghanistan to spend the winter in remote mountain hideouts. It is thought they are under the command of the notorious guerrilla leader, Juma Namangani.

The reports are a source of acute embarrassment to the Dushanbe government. In the course of the past two years, the IMU has twice staged armed incursions into neighbouring Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan.

Both states have subsequently accused Tajikistan of harbouring the militants, many of whom fought alongside the United Tajik Opposition, UTO, during the 1992-1997 civil war. The Dushanbe authorities have strenuously denied the claims and, last September, launched a military offensive against guerrilla bases in the eastern mountains.

Now the spectre of the IMU has once again returned to haunt them.

A source in the Tajik military told IWPR, "It's hard to say with any degree of certainty whether or not Juma Namangani is currently in Tajikistan but reports from the eastern provinces indicate that there are armed Uzbek fighters in the region."

He went on to say that unconfirmed reports of guerrilla activity in eastern Tajikistan had been received as early as last December when Uzbek militants had allegedly set up illegal gun-emplacements on main roads.

A marked increase in visits by Tajik military officials to the region in recent weeks indicated that the government was taking the reports very seriously.

The officer, who asked not to be named, said the Uzbek fighters had often taken advantage of the loose controls on the Tajik-Afghan border to move freely between the two countries.

On this occasion, he explained, the IMU fighters had probably been forced to find alternative winter camps by the unstable military situation in Afghanistan and the lack of supplies and fuel in the neighbouring region. The new government commission set up to tackle the situation is made up entirely of former UTO field commanders and headed by the emergencies minister, Mirzo Ziyoev.

It was Ziyoev who commanded the armed opposition group during civil war when IMU leader Juma Namangani served as his deputy.

Ziyoev makes no secret of his sympathies for the IMU cause although he has repeatedly denied claims by the Uzbek authorities that he has actively assisted the guerrillas.

On this occasion, however, it is hoped that the UTO leaders will be able to persuade their erstwhile comrades to abandon the mountain hideouts and return to Afghanistan.

But the current situation across the border may mean that the IMU has little alternative but to stay in Tajikistan - in which case the government in Dushanbe will find itself in a familiar dilemma.

"The international community is putting enormous pressure on Tajikistan and the neighbouring states to wipe out the Uzbek fighters but Tajikistan is simply not in a position to do this," the Tajik army source explains.

Firstly, he says, the Tajik military cannot mount an effective operation in the mountains during the winter months and, secondly, the authorities are concerned that such a move could spark fresh armed conflict in the former Soviet republic.

Former UTO leader Said Abdullo Nuri, now chairman of the Party of Islamic Rebirth, agrees with the government line. "The presence of IMU fighters in Tajikistan - and particularly any attempt to destroy them - could pose a real threat to peace in the region," he says.

If IMU fighters were really taking refuge in Tajikistan, Nuri believes the "full responsibility for this should lie on the shoulders of those who are responsible for the security of the Tajik-Afghan border."

While a large part of the border is guarded by Russian troops, some sectors come under the control of the Tajik military.

The Tajik army source commented, "It is almost certainly through these sectors that the Uzbek fighters are moving back and forth." He believes the fighters are able to bribe their way through the border posts whilst some border guards are themselves former UTO members integrated into government forces under 1997 peace agreement.

A Tajik analyst, who asked not to be named, said the Tajik authorities were faced with two real options. In the best case scenario, the IMU members would agree to return to Afghanistan without further complications.

However, if the Uzbek fighters refused to leave, the Tajiks would have no choice but to mount military operations and assure the international community that the IMU fighters had either been driven back into Afghanistan or annihilated.

"In either case, the Tajik government should in some way prove to the international community that it is taking action against the insurgents who threaten the security of the entire Central Asian region," the analyst commented.

Juma Namangani is at the top of the "most wanted list". The 31-year-old Uzbek is leader of the militant wing of the IMU. In the late 1980s, he served with a Soviet paratroop regiment in Afghanistan but later went on to join the Tovba Islamic movement. In 1991, he led a failed Islamic uprising in the town of Namangan before fleeing to Tajikistan where civil war had broken out.

Namangani fought with the UTO forces for most of 1992, then left for Afghanistan where he trained in a mujahideen camp. In 1998, he became one of the founder members of the IMU, establishing a training camp for Uzbek militants in the Sufien settlement of Tajikistan.

The so-called Namangani battalion, which numbers between 100-150 men, took part in the incursion into Kyrgyzstan in August 1999. The IMU staged further raids on Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan in August last year, after which the US placed the group on its list of international terrorist organisations.

Vladimir Davlatov and Turat Akimov are regular IWPR contributors

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