Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Islamic Radicals Suspected in Kyrgyz Attack

Raid on police station in southern Kyrgyzstan raises spectre of renewed Islamic guerrilla activity.
By Sultan Jumagulov

The Kyrgyz and Uzbek authorities have tightened up border security following daylight raids on two police stations in southern Kyrgyzstan, prompting speculation that Islamic extremists were involved.

Kyrgyzstan’s interior ministry said that early on the morning of May 15 a group of eight masked and armed men stormed into the regional police headquarters in the centre of Jalalabad. They beat up the officers on duty, grabbed several dozen automatic rifles and pistols, and left.

Half an hour later they turned up at the main city police station, also in the city centre. The police there had not been warned by their colleagues, and they too were beaten and disarmed. The attackers then took off in stolen vehicles. Police gave chase, belatedly, but it was not until night fell that they caught up with the raiders and captured all but one of them. No one was killed.

The attack followed closely on another violent incident in the south of Kyrgyzstan. On May 8, one person died when a money exchange office was blown up in the city of Osh. Both Jalalabad and Osh are located a few kilometers from the border with Uzbekistan.

Kyrgyz police arrested seven people after the blast, and seized explosives, two pistols, false passports, and extremist Islamic literature.

In their first reaction to the attacks on the police, the authorities hinted that they thought Islamic extremists were behind them, saying they had “the same roots” as the Osh bombing. First deputy interior minister Rasulberdi Raimberdiev had earlier blamed that explosion on groups based outside Kyrgyzstan. He did not name any organisation, but local observers said it was clear that he was talking about the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, IMU.

“A number of foreign criminal groups, including political groups, are linked to this story,” Raimberdiev told a press conference on May 12,

The Kyrgyz authorities say that the organisers of the Osh explosion were also behind a bomb blast at a Bishkek market which left seven people dead and dozens seriously injured in December.

The IMU launched guerrilla raids into southern Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan in 1999 and 2000. Many of its members were in northern Afghanistan fighting alongside the Taleban when the US and coalition forces trapped and defeated the Afghan militia in Kunduz in November 2001. Since then the IMU has been quiet, and until recently there were no signs that it had rebuilt its fighting capacity.

The reaction from the Kyrgyz and Uzbek authorities suggested they feared a surge of IMU attacks. Uzbekistan announced it would immediately beef up security on the border as a direct response to the incident, while Kyrgyzstan put most of its police and some of the army on high alert.

“The moment the order is given our forces are ready to provide the right level of assistance for the law enforcement forces,” Kyrgyz defence ministry spokesman Mirbek Koylubaev told IWPR.

Kyrgyz parliamentary deputy and former KGB officer Kubatbek Baybolov is in no doubt that Islamic extremists are back in action. “These forces have chosen this country only because of its economic weakness and the frailty of state structures, which makes it easier for them to achieve their aims,” he said

The latest violence followed closely on a warning from the US State Department that Islamic groups could be about to attack American nationals or interests. The May 6 warning, addressed to US citizens and servicemen in Kyrgyzstan, mentioned the IMU by name, “The US government has learned the IMU has become increasingly active in Central Asia.”

Tighter security measures have been put in place at the American embassy in Kyrgyzstan and the military base used by US-led coalition forces at Manas airport, near the capital.

But the Kyrgyz authorities appear to be reluctant to pin responsibility for the violence too firmly on the IMU. Speaking about the Osh and Bishkek bombs, interior ministry spokesman Joldoshbek Buzurmankulov said on May 14, “Only an investigation will reveal the real organizers of the explosions in the country.”

After initially suggesting the police station attacks also had an Islamic extremist connection, government sources began suggesting that they were the result of political infighting unrelated to the IMU.

The second version of the story, as told by the government newspaper Slovo Kyrgyzstana on May 16, had it that the attackers were in some way linked to the political opposition – specifically groups who have been protesting against the government since police shot and killed six demonstrators in the Aksy district in March last year.

“During the attack on the police department the criminals threatened to carry out a coup d’etat and topple the legitimate government,” the article said. The attack happened a day after the former Jalalabad prosecutor and a number of policemen began appeals against their convictions for their part in the killings.

Finally, late on May 16, Buzurmankulov said the raid was no more than “an attack by robbers aimed at freeing their criminal boss”. The gang were professional criminals trying to get their mafia chieftain out of a cell at police headquarters. They couldn’t get the door unlocked, so they left him there, took the guns and ran.

It remains unclear whether the IMU on the verge of carrying out a wave of attacks. Some say the Kyrgyz government is concerned that too much talk of Islamic terror would cause a scare and damage the country’s reputation.

A source in the Kyrgyz government who asked to remain anonymous told IWPR, “Theories about evil plans by international extremist forces on Kyrgyz territory might scare off international investors.” And RFE/RL reporter Burul Sarygulova said, “The summer season will soon be upon us. It’s a time when Kyrgyzstan can boost its budget from tourist revenues. It appears that the authorities have decided not to lend an international flavour to these incidents.”

Whoever was behind the latest attacks, the Kyrgyz government continues to face a dual headache in the south – protests from the political opposition built around the Aksy tragedy, and the potential threat of IMU insurgency. Summer can bring more than tourists – it melts the snow in the high passes, which in recent years has brought IMU guerrillas slipping through the mountains and across borders.

Sultan Jumagulov is an IWPR contributor in Bishkek

More IWPR's Global Voices