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Fighting Continues in Southern Uzbekistan

Guerrillas in southern Uzbekistan are surrounded and running out of ammunition, official sources claim
By Galima Bukharbaeva

Twelve Uzbek soldiers have died in recent clashes with guerrillas in Surkhandarya, southern Uzbekistan, official sources claim. A further ten wounded are being treated at the military hospital in Termez. Most of the fatalities were soldiers and officers from elite military units, a source at the Sariasio military headquarters said.


The majority of Uzbek casualties had been caused by sniper fire on units sent in to reconnoitre the area, the source said. An unofficial source, however, said the largest group of casualties died in an ambush.


Uzbek television carried pictures of decomposing and disfigured remains, reportedly those of guerrillas killed in fighting since August 5.


According to intercepted radio transmissions, official sources claim, the guerrillas are running short of supplies, especially ammunition and medicines.


An officer from the Uzbek defence ministry claimed the guerrillas were now using tracer bullets, which give away their positions, and were firing single shots, rather than bursts of automatic fire as before.


The Uzbek military insist the guerrillas are completely surrounded, with no hope of receiving reinforcements. Kamiljon Djabbarov, Uzbek Defence Ministry press spokesman, said a group of around ten guerrillas had attempted to break through to their comrades on the night of August 11-12 near the village of Kishtut on the Uzbek-Tajik border. The attempt failed, he said.


Sources at the Sariasio headquarters believe the guerrilla operation in Uzbekistan could be a decoy ahead of a more serious attack on the Batken region in Kyrgyzstan, where two incursions by guerrilla forces on August 11 and 15 have resulted in at least 24 Kyrgyz casualties.


Official reports claim at least 25 guerrillas have been killed. Djabbarov said on August 15 the bodies of eight guerrillas had been recovered and attempts were now being made to identify the remains. An officer from the defence ministry said other bodies, although located, were not being removed for fear of booby-traps and snipers.


A soldier said there was a strong stench of decay coming from caves high up in the mountains. It is thought the guerrillas, perhaps unable to bury their dead, are placing the bodies of fallen comrades in the caves.


To limit casualties, Djabbarov said, the Uzbek military are using armoured vehicles, motorised field arms and air power to strike at guerrilla emplacements. Mortars, flame-throwers and aerial bombardment are being used, he said.


Once guerrillas are located, Djabbarov said, air strikes are launched and then followed up by ground operations to "cleanse" the area.


A source at military headquarters in Sariasio said Uzbek ground forces had recovered a bag containing surgical equipment and food supplies.


Colonel Kamol Akhmedov, commander of the South-Western Special Military District, said, "I'd like for it to be all over tomorrow, but it's impossible to give precise dates for the end of the operation."


But even if this military operation does succeed in repelling the guerrillas and sealing the area there is no guarantee that guerrilla incursions elsewhere along the mountainous Uzbek-Tajik border can be prevented.


Galima Bukharbaeva is IWPR Project Director in Uzbekistan.