Uzbek Border Lockdown After Andijan Violence

Traffic and trade with Kyrgyzstan halts as uneasy calm settles in Uzbek east.

Uzbek Border Lockdown After Andijan Violence

Traffic and trade with Kyrgyzstan halts as uneasy calm settles in Uzbek east.

Tight border controls remain in place on Uzbekistan’s eastern border following the armed attacks in and around the eastern city of Andijan on May 25-26.

The frontier with Kyrgyzstan remains all but sealed off, with only a handful of checkpoints still open. The only people being let through are Uzbek nationals returning home, while according to the Bishkek-based Kyrgyz news agency AKI-press, Kyrgyz citizens – even diplomats – are being allowed to cross only if they can prove their business is pressing.

The Uzbek authorities are now planning to create a 50-metre-deep buffer zone on the stretch of border nearest to Andijan, according to AKI-press, and officials have already told residents of one area – 180 households in all – that they will have to move out.

Details of the violence are still sketchy because information coming out through Uzbek state media is carefully filtered.

The main source is a statement from the Uzbek prosecution service saying that overnight on May 25-26, a police checkpoint on the outskirts of Khanabad, a town in Andijan region, was attacked by two or three armed individuals. A policeman and one of the attackers were wounded in an exchange of fire, and all the attackers got away, the statement said.

Foreign media reports said the Khanabad offices of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, which controls the country’s uniformed police, and the National Security Service, SNB, were also attacked.

The following afternoon, again according to the prosecution service statement, a suicide bomber killed himself and a policeman in Andijan itself, injuring a number of passers-by.

The statement did not point the finger at any particular group, but the Russian news agency Interfax quoted an anonymous source in the Uzbek security services as suggesting the attack was carried out by the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, IMU, an outlawed insurgent group.

In 1999 and 2000, IMU guerrillas mounted raids on Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, and the authorities in Tashkent have also accused the group of involvement in subsequent outbreaks of violence.

A claim by Uzbek prosecutors that the attackers came into the country from neighbouring Kyrgyzstan has been challenged by officials from that country, who have asked to see proof of this allegation.

When Uzbekistan’s president Islam Karimov visited Andijan on May 31, he drew an explicit connection with the violence that shook the city four years earlier.

“These events demonstrate that those who pursue evil designs have not renounced them,” he said in remarks carried by state TV.

He also hinted darkly at foreign support for the latest attacks.

On May 13, 2005, government troops opened fire using automatic weapons on a crowd of demonstrators, killing several hundred civilians, according to estimates by human rights groups.

In the face of calls for a proper investigation, Karimov was defiant, saying less than 200 died, most of them armed Islamic extremists or else policemen doing their duty.

On May 28, the armoured personnel carriers deployed in and around Andijan in response to the violence were taken off the streets, AKI-press reported.

Speaking on June 1, a local observer said vehicles and travellers entering Andijan were being checked.

“There are more than the usual number of traffic police in the city, but the situation is stable,” he said. “I haven’t heard who might be under suspicion but I understand police have been visiting homes looking for someone.”

In the city, very little information was available publicly and no one was discussing what had happened.

“People are scared of each other. It’s a very strange situation,” said the observer.

Kyrgyz border guards said they ended the heightened security arrangements on their side on May 28 as things were back to normal. However, there is no sign of easing on the Uzbek side.

The tight security measures have hit communities on either side of the frontier, reducing cross-border trade and consequently raising prices at local markets – on the Uzbek side, for Chinese-made consumer goods, and in Kyrgyzstan, for imported Uzbek foodstuffs.

“How many days have already passed without vegetables and herbs and other foodstuffs passing through the border?” asked Ulughbek, a young man at the market in Bekabat, a town on the Kyrgyz side.

Ulughbek said traders, porters and taxi drivers had been left without work because of the clampdown on traffic of any kind.

In the aftermath of the attacks, the question remains of who was behind them. Such is the dearth of hard information that speculation ranges from a resurgence in IMU activity to a put-up job by the Uzbek secret police.

The observer in Andijan said local people were blaming Islamic fundamentalists, but added that he himself was more inclined to believe “it’s the government behind all this”, the aim being to justify “another wave of repression and purges”.

In an earlier interview, a former police officer in Uzbekistan who used to work on counter-insurgency said the country’s security services and military had been engaged in a major operation against a group of armed militants. The attacks in Khanabad and Andijan were, he said, a rearguard action by these insurgents.

An Uzbek political analyst now based abroad, Tashpulat Yoldashev, says it would be premature to jump to conclusions. He claims that in a number of previous attacks ascribed to the IMU, there are leads that point to the SNB having some involvement.

Asyl Osmonalieva, a journalist based in Bishkek, contributed to this report.

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