Militants Threaten Kyrgyz Frontier

Hundreds of armed militants appear poised to stir up trouble in the Batken border region of Kyrgyzstan

Militants Threaten Kyrgyz Frontier

Hundreds of armed militants appear poised to stir up trouble in the Batken border region of Kyrgyzstan

The motives and origins of the fighters who appeared in the villages of Batken last summer remain something of a mystery. Some believe the armed infiltrators were Islamist supporters of the Tajik opposition. Others suggest they were connected with drug trafficking.

One thing, however, that cannot be disputed is the likelihood of another such incursion into the Kyrgyz border region. Bishkek intelligence sources estimate 2,000 militants are currently grouped along the Tajik side of the frontier.

The presence of the armed groups, apparently tolerated by the Dushanbe government, poses a genuine threat to Tajikistan's neighbours.

These fighters are thought to be mostly Uzbek in origin, forced to flee repression in their own country. Once in Tajikistan they fought for the United Tajik Opposition during the civil war there. With the conflict over and the opposition in government, the militants enjoy the protection of both the presidency and their former opposition patrons.

The presence of these armed groups only serves to further undermine security in this remote and mountainous part of the world. Batken has a long history of instability and poor inter-ethnic relations. In 1989 trouble between the neighbouring Tajik and Kyrgyz populations erupted when a group of Tajik collective farmers occupied 200 hectares of virgin Kyrgyz land.

Angry Kyrgyz locals quickly expelled the intruders, but in retaliation the Tajik farmers blocked up the Machoi canal, halting the only supply of water into Kyrgyzstan. In the ensuing brawls one man died and several people were injured.

The simmering disputes over land and water in the region were never properly addressed. Sporadic feuding has continued in the region, which now straddles the two independent republics.

In the mid 1990s, with civil war raging in Tajikistan, the Kyrgyz authorities assembled a task force to examine the situation in Batken. The investigation soon revealed that inter-ethnic tension in the area was very high.

The task force came across complaints from passengers turfed off buses by groups of thugs who took exception to their ethnic origin; of armed bands refusing to pay their bills and threatening restauranteurs at gunpoint. There were also reports of Tajiks seizing land and newly built properties from Kyrgyz.

Mass unemployment, poverty and poor infrastructure affected people on both sides of the border. Some areas are still without electricity.

On top of all these difficulties, the sensitive issue of border enclaves became a serious problem with the break-up of the Soviet Union. What had been merely administrative frontiers became national borders. The arbitrary delineation marked out by Soviet bureaucrats resulted in Kyrgyz villagers finding themselves citizens of Uzbekistan or Tajikistan.

Local residents complain of corrupt customs officers and border guards demanding bribes from travelers, even from people wishing only to visit relatives in the next village.

But the collapse of the Soviet Union brought another, and perhaps more serious problem. Batken became a major crossroads for the drugs' trade. A quick glance at a map should explain why. The region's proximity to Afghanistan and the porosity of the Tajik-Kyrgyz border were major factors.

Drugs production began in Afghanistan decades ago. In a country crippled by incessant civil war, the trade has grown into a multi-billion dollar business. Afghanistan is thought to be the world's leading heroin producer.

Afghan drugs used to reach the West through Iran. But in the mid-1980s the Tehran authorities launched a "jihad" against the drugs' business forcing the traffickers to find alternative routes. The collapse of the Soviet Union opened new corridors to the north.

Tajikistan shares 1,211 km border with Afghanistan. Recent estimates reckon between 8 and 10 tons of drugs destined for Europe cross this frontier every month.

The route through Batken is particularly busy. It is the shortest and most convenient path and was for a long time completely unguarded. The mountainous terrain makes the area very difficult to patrol. Armed groups have commuted to and fro between settlements on either side of the frontier for many years.

Poverty and unemployment have stepped up recruitment into the drugs' business, which provides the only source of income for thousands of people. But the trade has also brought a proliferation of weapons to an already volatile region and an abundance of counterfeit currency.

The drugs' business has also brought a catastrophic increase in the number of heroin addicts in Kyrgyzstan. During the 1990s the drugs' trade moved increasingly into heroin rather than raw opium. In Osh nowadays one can buy a hit of heroin for as little as 25 som (50 US cents).

In 1992, the Kyrgyz authorities seized 5 kilos of raw opium. In 1999, 1.9 tons of narcotic substances were confiscated. In the first two months of the year, a further 500 kilos were seized.

Against this backdrop, the presence of 2,000 armed fighters just over the Tajik border poses a real danger for Batken. Relations between Dushanbe and Tashkent can hardly be described as warm, and Tajikistan appears inclined to keep the so-called "Uzbek card" up its sleeve for the forseeable future.

Alexander Zelichenko, a journalist from Bishkek.

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