Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Fatal Shootings on Uzbek Border
Uzbek frontier guards have shot 13 suspected smugglers on the border with Kyrgyzstan since the beginning of June.
Khurshid Tursunov, the deputy governor of Uzbekistan’s Fergana province, with special responsibility for frontier affairs, confirmed the deaths.
"They were all smugglers," he said, adding that this meant they had broken Uzbek import laws.
All those killed were Uzbekistan nationals.
An Uzbek border guards officer who did not want to be named also confirmed the figure of 13 fatal shootings, but as well as alleged smugglers he suggested a link to “intensified activity by [Islamic] extremist groups” ahead of September, when Uzbekistan will mark 20 years of independence.
The authorities in Tashkent have introduced tighter security precautions since May, although it is not clear whether they have intelligence about possible threats from groups like the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. (See Uzbekistan: Nervous Uzbek Government Tightens Security.)
The risk of militant incursions is certainly the line being handed down to rank-and-file border guards. An Uzbek soldier manning a checkpoint on the frontier with Kyrgyzstan said commanders had issued orders authorising troops to open fire on anyone trying to cross without approval.
"All those people are bringing in explosives and religious literature to Uzbekistan, not goods or food,” he asserted.
A villager from Andijan region, close to Kyrgyzstan, said his brother was among six people killed while returning from the Karasuu market in Kyrgyzstan.
"My brother was a trader, and was shot by [Uzbek] border guards when he was bringing his goods back across the border," he said. "We went to the frontier post to find out what the reason was, and they told us he’d looked suspicious because he had a large beard and they took him for a Wahhabi."
The term “Wahhabi” is applied as a catch-all derogatory term for anyone seen as a Sunni fundamentalist in Uzbekistan.
Aziz, also from the Andijan area, was nearly killed while bringing goods back from Batken in Kyrgyzstan.
"The Uzbek border guards started firing at us, and one guy died and another was wounded," Aziz said. "We’re just shuttle-traders bringing in stuff to sell. The border guards told us they were killing terrorists and we shouldn’t cross the border until September 1."
The Uzbek government is engaged in a constant battle to curb imports and ensure that only approved distribution companies are allowed to sell them. But shortages of affordable goods mean there has always been a lively trade in goods – mainly Chinese-made – from wholesale markets like Karasuu, Central Asia’s largest.
The Uzbek authorities have all but closed all 15 crossing-points with Kyrgyzstan since that country underwent regime chance followed by ethnic violence last year. Cholponbek Turusbekov, chief of staff of Kyrgyzstan’s border guards service, said the only exception were people going to weddings and funerals of relatives or on their way to an airport in either country. They were allowed to cross at eight of the 15 crossing-points.
Despite the closure, traders have continued to find ways of slipping across.
An NBCentralAsia observer in southern Kyrgyzstan described how Uzbek traders pay weekly visits to a market at Khalmion in Batken region.
"Many drive along the mountainside, but if they are spotted, they are shot at without warning," he said.
Abror, an Uzbek from the town of Kokand, believes the authorities are deliberately targeting smugglers rather than possible militants.
"The authorities force us to smuggle because there’s no other work in jobs in the Fergana region,” said Abror, who has successfully evaded detection on several cross-border shopping trips. “Everyone does shuttle-trading, and the government tries to suppress it by shooting us.”
This article was produced as part of IWPR's News Briefing Central Asia output, funded by the National Endowment for Democracy.
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