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Kyrgyz Border Attack Confusion

Islamic insurgency or military own goal - a recent border post attack remains a mystery
By Venera Jumataeva

Kyrgyz officials are struggling to establish exactly who was responsible for a serious attack on border guards in the Batken region of the country's frontier with Tajikistan earlier this week.


So far Islamic insurgents and drug traffickers have been blamed for the incident. And, embarrassingly for the government, there are suggestions that the Kyrgyz soldiers may have been mistakenly targeted by their own forces.


According to the defence ministry in Bishkek, the army frontier post was attacked on the night of July 24. Two border guards were wounded. There were no other reports of casualties.


The Batken region has been the target of attacks by the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, IMU, over the last two years. In light of this, Kyrgyz media, including the state news agency Kabar, blamed Islamic militants.


However, the Bishkek military leadership was more cautious. "We cannot say with great certainty that these gunmen are members of IMU," said security minister Bolot Januzakov.


Some officials have suggested that the culprits were drug traffickers. A third theory is that the remnants of Tajik opposition forces, who have been hiding out in the area, since a military crackdown earlier this month, might have stumbled across the post by accident.


Tajik military sources, however, suggest this is highly unlikely as they believe die-hard troops loyal to former Tajik rebel leader Rakhmon Sanginov are trapped not far from the Tajik capital, Dushanbe.


Yet another version of events, potentially embarrassing for the Kyrgyz army, was that the soldiers were hit by friendly fire. "The Kyrgyz military is saying the IMU or drug traffickers may been responsible to avoid embarrasment," said a military expert.


The theory that drug traffickers were to blame is supported by the fact that the Fergana valley, where the Batken region is situated, is one of the major transit routes for the smuggling of narcotics from Afghanistan to European markets. Last year, the Kyrgyz authorities reported the seizure of five tonnes worth of drugs here.


But Fergana valley region expert Arslan Koichiev rejects this hypothesis. "The traffickers try to avoid direct confrontation with government forces," he said. "The only thing they want is to transport their drugs. If they get into a trap, they abandon their goods and run away."


Koichiev believes the culprits are more likely to have been the IMU whom, he says, prefer to operate at night in brief skirmishes, then disappearing without any trace.


Fears of an IMU offensive were raised in March, when Kyrgyz delegates to a session of an inter-governmental commission in Bishkek warned that the Islamists were preparing a new round of incursions for the summer.


Security minister Askarbek Mameev said he believed the raids would be on a much bigger scale than before, saying that up to 3000 fighters were massed on the Tajik frontier. Such statements caused migrants to leave the region in droves.


So far, no clear statement regarding the border incident has been released by the authorities. Some local observers attribute this to the lack of ministerial coordination. Others believe that the Kyrgyz army is attempting some sort of cover-up.


Venera Jumataeva and Sultan Jumagulov are regular IWPR contributors