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Guerrillas Raid Uzbekistan
A raid by around 100 guerrillas into southern Uzbekistan in early August has sorely tested newly improved relations between Tashkent and Dushanbe. Nevertheless there is a marked absence of the war of words provoked by similar past troubles.
The guerrillas, believed to members of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, IMU, entered Uzbek territory from Tajikistan, Tashkent claims. The Uzbek Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov said the rebels were receiving support and assistance from unnamed members of the United Tajik Opposition, UTO, but he stopped short of pointing the finger directly at Dushanbe.
"We have reason to believe activists from the United Tajikistani Opposition [UTO] are integrated into the power structures of Tajikistan," Kamilov said. "Similarly elements, which are not integrated, have strong links with the extremists in Afghanistan, and it these elements which secretly give assistance and aid to rebel and terrorist groups."
In contrast to previous occasions Kamilov said Uzbek and Tajik forces were co-operating to combat the incursion. Significantly he said the rebels originated in Afghanistan, not Tajikistan, and limited his criticism of Dushanbe to their failure to prevent the group crossing Tajik territory.
Tajik officials meanwhile deny the rebels entered Uzbekistan from their territory. Major-General Safarali Saifullaev, a senior officer in the Tajik border guards, said on August 8 it was impossible for such a group to have crossed either the Tajik-Uzbek or Tajik-Afghan border undetected. A leader of the IMU, Tahir Yuldash, claims the fighters had been in Uzbekistan for some time and denied his group received aid from the UTO.
The Tajik ambassador to Uzbekistan, Tadjiddin Mardonov, said his country's security services were taking steps to prevent reinforcements reaching the rebels. Likewise the Dushanbe authorities were preventing the rebels escaping back into Tajikistan, Mardonov added.
Official Uzbek reports on August 9 claimed 15 guerrillas had been killed in clashes with the Uzbek military. Tashkent refused, however, to comment on Uzbek casualties. The security services said the rebels are surrounded in uninhabited mountain ravines near the Tajik-Uzbek border, but that all routes back into Tajikistan are blocked.
Meanwhile on August 11 Kyrgyz forces fought off a separate incursion by guerrillas, also believed to have come from Tajikistan, in southern Kyrgyzstan.
"A group of 30-40 rebels was discovered in the high mountains along the Kyrgyz-Tajik border in the Batken region not far from the Toro pass," presidential spokesman Osmonakun Ibraimov said on Friday.
Ibraimov said the fighters, also believed to be members of IMU, appeared to be en route Uzbekistan. Kyrgyz Defence Minister Esen Topoyev has travelled to the Batken to oversee operations against the rebels, Ibraimov said. The Kyrgyz authorities said one officer and one soldier had been injured in the fighting.
This month's events in southeast Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan mirror last year's incursion by IMU fighters into the Batken region on the Kyrgyz-Tajik border. On that occasion the rebels demanded the Kyrgyz authorities provide them a safe corridor into Uzbekistan. The resultant battle with the Kyrgyz military lasted three months. After collecting a ransom in exchange for a kidnapped group of Japanese geologists, however, the rebels retreated back into Tajikistan.
Reports in the Uzbek press claim intercepted radio communications indicate some of the rebels in southeast Uzbekistan are veterans of last year's Batken incursion. The Uzbek authorities also claim they have proof they are dealing with international terrorists. The intercepts, they say, reveal some rebels communicating in foreign languages.
Experts believe the existence of the UTO has prevented the Tajik President Immomali Rakhmonov from establishing total control over Tajik territory, thereby allowing rebel groups some freedom of movement.
The threat from such groups is a constant source of annoyance to the Uzbek authorities. Political analyst Shukhrat Khurramov believes the Dushanbe government is failing in its obligations to quash rebel groups. Uzbekistan shares a 1,160 kilometer frontier with Tajikistan.
Officials believe the rebels are attempting to establish staging posts and supply dumps along the border area of Uzbekistan prior to launching a terrorist campaign against the Uzbek government and developing their drugs and weapons trafficking routes.
The Secretary of the Uzbek Security Council, Mirakbar Rachmankulov, said the security forces had received some advanced warning of the incursion. Small groups of fighters had been reported filtering through into the Sariasiysk region of Surkhandaria of Uzbekistan from Tajikistan. When it was later established that a larger group had formed there steps were taken to block their movements, Rachmankulov said.
Takhir Yuldash told the BBC the fighters were under his command and that initial military encounters with Uzbek forces had resulted in casualties on both sides, although he would not say how many.
Kamilov also declined to give any details on casualties sustained by the Uzbek forces saying only "not many, maybe three or four people."
Unconfirmed reports, however, claim at least ten Uzbek soldiers were killed during the fighting on August 4 and 5, and a further six admitted to hospital in Sariasio.
The Uzbek military said they would avoid an all-out offensive against the rebels due to the risk of high casualties. Rather the army are bombarding rebel positions with grenade launchers after establishing their position by helicopter, military sources said. All passes, roads and paths have also been blocked off, the army claim.
The inaccessibility of the region, however, may be advantageous to the rebels. The terrain is very difficult, with deep ravines, caves and mountainous cliffs rising to 4,000 meters. The area is almost uninhabited.
Experts believe the rebels could mount a long resistance campaign, wearing down the Uzbek army with hit-and-run and sniping tactics. The rebels, the experts argue, are veterans of mountain warfare in Afghanistan and Tajikistan, and are probably better equipped at finding their way around in the region.
Given the guerrillas isolated position in Surkhandaria, however, it seems unlikely the incursion could have a widespread destabilising effect on Uzbekistan.
"The fighters in Surkhandaria can't destabilize the situation in the country as a whole, but they will be able to create a pressure point in Uzbekistan," said Khurramov. "But the conflict will wear down the Uzbek state and use up a lot of material resources and energy."
Rakhmankulov appeared more upbeat, however, claiming the rebels are surrounded on all sides and results are expected in the near future.
Meanwhile residents in the Surkhandaria region are increasingly anxious as events unfold. Villagers from the areas closest to the fighting - Kishtut, Sarinova, Registon, Kunturmas and Khamidarcha - have been relocated to safer areas.
One local woman said there is a large military presence in the area now and that soldiers are rigorously checking all vehicles and passengers. The woman said gunfire could be heard in the distance and that people are afraid the conflict could be lengthy. She added, however, that the presence of Uzbek soldiers in the area has calmed fears and brought some sense of hope.
Galima Bukharbaeva is Project Director for IWPR Tashkent.
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