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Kyrgyz Confusion Over Uzbek Demining Bid

Officials in the Batken region of Kyrgyzstan say they’ve been kept in the dark about an Uzbek mine clearance operation.
By Alia Abdullina

A shroud of secrecy over scheduled Uzbek demining operations along the border with Kyrgyzstan has left Kyrgyz officials and politicians uncertain as to whether the process has actually begun or not.

The Uzbek defence ministry insists that its troops began to clear mines in a disputed area close to the Tortgul village in the Batken region of Kyrgyzstan on August 16 as previously agreed with Bishkek, but a number of local officials say there’s little evidence to support the claim.

The Tashkent authorities state the agreements struck with their Bishkek counterparts over the clearance of Uzbek mines - laid four years ago to prevent incursions by the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, IMU - did not require the presence of Kyrgyz observers.

But some Kyrgyz officials maintain there was a verbal understanding with Tashkent that they would be able to witness the process.

For the residents of the Batken border region, the Uzbek decision to begin clearing the explosives - a move agreed on in July after pressure from the international community and other countries in the region - came as a great relief as their freedom of movement and livelihood had been severely affected.

In all, the Uzbeks mined 42 kilometres of their border with Kyrgyzstan, in some places planting between 2-3,000 devices per kilometre – with much of the affected area lying close to villages. Some stretches of Uzbekistan’s border with Tajikistan were also mined.

The secrecy surrounding the Batken demining operation has prompted some locals to question the effectiveness of Uzbek efforts to remove the scourge, which over the years has resulted in the deaths of several villagers and hundreds of farm animals.

Uzbek and Kyrgyz military officials discussed details of the mine clearance operation at the end of July, the former notifying the latter that work would begin on August 16.

Tashkent insists that the process started on schedule, but it appears to have been shrouded in secrecy leaving Batken officials unclear and confused about its conduct and progress.

“We have not seen the mine-clearing process,” said Talantbek Amankulov, commander of the Batken border military detachment. “There are still warning signs. No clearing equipment has been brought in. Our Uzbek colleagues promised to send us a letter when the process is completed, but if I haven’t seen mines being removed, how can I guarantee our citizens safety?”

Kyyalbek Sabytov, a Red Crescent official in charge of the local mine awareness campaign, says he’s similarly in the dark, “Logically, we should have been the first to be informed that the work had begun. It is quite strange that this wasn’t the case.”

Parliamentary deputies representing the region say they’ve no idea what’s going on. And the Batken governor appears to be only marginally better informed, reportedly confirming to an assembly representative that the process had started but, because no Kyrgyz observers were allowed to be present, he would not be able to assure locals that the affected region will be safe once the Uzbek soldiers finish their job.

The absence of Kyrgyz observers has angered local representatives. Tashbolot Baltabaev, a parliamentary deputy for the Batken region, says it throws into doubt recent treaties between the two countries.

Tashkent insists that there was no provision made for Kyrgyz officials to witness the clearance operation, but Tolkun Khusainov, deputy commander of the Batken border military detachment, insisted that there was an “unwritten agreement” that there would be such a presence “so that we could be sure that all the mines had been cleared”.

With so much uncertainty swirling about, the residents of the border region don’t know what to believe. All are hoping that the clearances have started and that they will be soon rid of the mines that have for so long blighted their lives.

“If the mine clearing has really begun then this is good news of course - they’re just a bit late. I lost my husband because of them. But even if they’re all removed, I will still be afraid to go to the area where they were planted – and I won’t let my children go there either, “ said Chonkara resident Patilla Shamshieva.

Headmaster of the Chonkara primary school, Kaldarali Taramabaev, told IWPR, “I didn’t know that the mine-clearing had actually begun, but if this is true then I can only welcome the news. We lived in friendship with the Uzbeks for centuries, and if the mines are taken away, another barrier between us will disappear. I hope that nothing like this ever happens again.”

Alia Abdullina and Leila Saralaeva are independent journalists in Batken and Bishkek respectively.

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