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Kyrgyz Angered by Uzbek “Terror Camp” Charges

It is not the first time Tashkent has lashed out at its neighbours, but accusing Kyrgyzstan of harbouring terrorists is a worrying escalation.
By Aziza Turdueva

A war of words has broken out after Uzbek officials claimed that the May uprising in Andijan was planned at “terrorist camps” in neighbouring Kyrgyzstan.


Accurate casualty figures may never be known, but eyewitness accounts suggest that hundreds of civilians died when Uzbek security forces opened fire on a crowd of protestors on Andijan's central square on May 13.


As Uzbekistan's leaders faced mounting criticism even from former friends like the United States, they have stuck steadfastly to their story that fewer than 200 people died, and they were all either armed rebels who deserved what they got, or members of the security forces hit by return fire.


Now it seems Uzbek leaders have identified a new target for blame: their neighbour Kyrgyzstan.


Uzbekistan’s deputy chief prosecutor Anvar Nabiev issued a statement on September 16 in which he claimed that “shortly before the [May 13] events began, arms and ammunition were purchased in the city of Jalalabad in Kyrgyzstan and brought by the terrorists into Uzbekistan".


Nabiev made the astonishing claim that 300,000 US dollars had been provided, from some unspecified source, to fund the Andijan violence.


The deputy prosecutor also launched a broadside against the Kyrgyz government, which both before and since the March revolution has been consistently more liberal than the hard-line Uzbek regime.


"A continuing policy of toadying to western ideals and pseudo-democracy has enabled members of extremist organisations to operate in Kyrgyzstan without any control or hindrance, [including] representatives of so-called human rights and opposition groups, all controlled from abroad, and also criminal elements," said Nabiev. "It was for this reason that the planners chose southern Kyrgyzstan as a base for promoting a pseudo-revolution and acts of terrorism."


Vyacheslav Khan, deputy secretary of the Security Council of Kyrgyzstan, was quick to react, saying the statement was totally without foundation.


"To date, we have no information whatsoever that gunmen were trained on Kyrgyzstan's territory," he told IWPR. "Nor is there any substance to the allegation that the central stadium in Osh was used as a training ground," he told IWPR.


Nabiev's comments clearly reflect an emerging official view in Uzbekistan, since they follow close on the heels of a report on the Andijan violence submitted to the Uzbek parliament on September 5. Prepared by the country's prosecution service, the report claimed that "between January and April 2005, foreign instructors trained around 70 religious extremists in sabotage and terrorist methods inside Kyrgyzstan ".


Kyrgyzstan's prosecutor general Azimbek Beknazarov, appointed after the opposition President Askar Akaev from power in March, was completely dismissive of the allegations made in the Uzbek report.


"These charges are absurd," Beknazarov told IWPR. "I think the Uzbeks produced this information because their parliament had demanded a report from the law-enforcement agencies on the reasons for the Andijan events. So their security services decided to put out this story in a bid to deflect some of the responsibility from themselves."


Beknazarov's response was repeated in equally strong terms by acting defence minister Ismail Isakov and deputy foreign Erkin Mamkulov.


"Kyrgyzstan has never provided any terrorists with assistance, bases, information or refuge," said Mamkulov. "The roots of the Andijan events should be sought not outside Uzbekistan, but inside it."


That is a position many external observers appear to agree with, on the basis of reports of what happened on May 13 and immediately beforehand.


There were a number of armed men on the square that day, but their weapons appeared to have been acquired the previous evening when protesters freed a group of businessmen from jail and went on to raid a military base. The businessmen denied charges they belonged to an Islamic group, and the thousands of people the security forces fired on were attending a protest meeting, not a paramilitary-led Islamic rebellion.


Astounding though they may seem, the latest allegations fit a pattern. In past years, whenever the Uzbek government has faced a real or imagined threat from domestic Islamic groups, it has dealt with the problem not by examining the repressive policies, which many analysts believe feed dissent, but by lambasting neighbours like Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakstan for what it sees as their excessive laxity on human rights and political opposition.


In the latest case, Kyrgyz political analyst Nur Omarov said, "They are blaming everything on Kyrgyzstan, to show that the problem came from outside, whereas within Uzbekistan everything is calm and peaceful."


Such threatening behaviour is much more than mere posturing, as Kyrgyz officials will be well aware. The Uzbek government has shown its readiness to tackle perceived threats aggressively and with little regard for diplomatic niceties. In 2000, its air force bombed a village in southern Kyrgyzstan after guerrillas of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan surfaced in the area.


With that in mind, some in Bishkek have reacted to the Uzbek statements with alarm.


"These charges may mark the beginning of a deterioration in relations," said Tashpolot Baltabaev, leader of the National Patriotic Movement. "More serious charges may follow – that Kyrgyzstan is supporting extremist forces against the Uzbek government."


The tension comes amid a general downturn in Kyrgyz-Uzbek relations in the wake of Andijan. Uzbekistan has failed to renew the annual contract under which it supplies gas to Kyrgyzstan, prompting fears of energy shortages in the winter.


That move was seen as punishment for a Kyrgyz decision to allow the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR to evacuate 439 Andijan refugees to Romania at the end of July. Uzbekistan had been seeking the return of the group, who had fled after the shootings and feared reprisals if they went back.


Still smarting from that rebuff, the Uzbek authorities will have been further angered by a recent Kyrgyz ruling that 15 refugees in custody at a detention centre in Osh would not be deported. Uzbek officials insist that the 15 include "terrorists" responsible for the Andijan violence. On September 15, the Kyrgyz prosecutor decided to hand over 11 of the group to the UNHCR.


At the moment it is hard to envisage how the "terror camp" dispute can be resolved. The Kyrgyz can give little ground, since they regard the claims as patently untrue. And the Uzbeks are still cross at attempts by the international community to hold them to account for the Andijan killings, so they are likely to stick tenaciously to their new version of events.


"Our office does not issue statements for no reason," said Uzbek prosecution service spokeswoman Svetlana Artykova, referring to the comments made by her superior Nabiev. "It's based on evidence. After conducting an investigation, the prosecutor's office has obtained proof that the [rebel] gunmen underwent training in southern Kyrgzstan."


Whatever they think of the allegations, Kyrgyz officials appear ready to respond to them seriously, to show the Uzbeks they are being cooperative.


"We must sort things out with the Uzbeks, check out the facts they have gathered," Miroslav Niyazov, who chairs Kyrgyzstan's national Security Council, told IWPR. "Perhaps their security forces possess certain information that gives substance to their claims. We in turn should be prepared to create a joint commission and work thoroughly and constructively.


"But such work must be based on concrete information, not emotion or charges plucked out of thin air."


Aziza Turdueva is a correspondent for Radio Azattyk, the Kyrgyz service of RFE/RL. Leila Saralaeva is an IWPR contributor in Bishkek