Uzbek-Kyrgyz Border Danger

Hold-up in delimitation process blamed for failure to clear mined frontier region.

Uzbek-Kyrgyz Border Danger

Hold-up in delimitation process blamed for failure to clear mined frontier region.

Landmines are continuing to kill and maim civilians in the Batken region because of the inability of Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan to come to an agreement over their common border.

Now volunteers from the local Red Crescent Society are preparing to erect signs warning of the dangers of landmines in Kyrgyzstan's Batken region, which borders Uzbekistan. "We cannot stand by and watch the peaceful population suffering from numerous mine explosions," the charity's head, Raisa Ibraimova, told IWPR.

A lack of progress in frontier talks has led to the deaths of many people in the heavily mined area, as it seems that the Uzbeks are not prepared to clear up the explosives until the border is clearly delimited.

The mines are a deadly legacy of the 1999-2000 offensive against the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, IMU, which invaded Batken and attempted to force its way into Uzbek territory through Kyrgyzstan.

In response, Tashkent laid hundreds of mines around the disputed frontier area, ostensibly to deter the Islamic militant group.

However, Batken regional administrators claim that local civilians, not Islamic extremists, are being killed or injured by the explosives.

Widower Sattar Shamshiev, who lived in the Batken village of Chonkara, was blown up by a mine on February 23 while he was grazing cattle with one of his five children.

Erkin Mamkulov, a senior Kyrgyz foreign ministry official, said that Uzbek border guards had planted the ordnance in disputed territory. Tashkent representatives were approached to comment on the claims, but they refused to do so, saying that only the country's security chiefs were authorised to speak on the subject.

The authorities in Bishkek say 13 people have died and many others injured in mine incidents over the past three years. Countless numbers of cattle and sheep have also been lost, further impoverishing the already struggling Batken folk.

Red Crescent activist Kialbek Sabitov told IWPR that villagers in the region were fast running out of patience. "The peasants do not let their children out of their sight, and every time we meet them they ask, 'When will we stop dying because of these mines? Why can't Bishkek and Tashkent come to an agreement and clear their territories?' They are very worried and angry," he said.

Kyrgyz parliamentary deputy Zainidin Kurmanov believes that a mine-clearing operation should begin immediately, saying, "Central Asia is stable now - everyone knows that the United States-led coalition destroyed the main Taleban and IMU in Afghanistan."

But the republic's foreign affairs minister Askar Aitmatov says Tashkent has yet to hand over maps of minefields - which it promised to do - and has failed to respond to Kyrgyz protests over the death of its civilians. "Attempts to discuss mine-clearing have met with little success. But under no circumstances should we see brotherly Uzbekistan as our enemy," he stressed, pointing out that Uzbek soldiers are regularly killed or injured in the same minefields.

Kyrgyz army personnel have made an attempt to clear some of the ordnance in the frontier zone, but border guard explosives expert Vladimir Bukhov told IWPR, "We couldn't make much headway because we do not know exactly where the border between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan lies."

Protests from Uzbek servicemen have also held up the process. "They've stated quite clearly that if the Kyrgyz personnel dug up and defused the mines, more would be planted, as it is not yet clear which land belongs to which republic," said defence ministry official Tairbek Madymarov.

Kyrgyz Red Crescent workers have been visiting Batken border villages to gather information on possible mined areas, and intend to erect signs warning about the danger. The charity's Nazira Baratbaeva believes that accidents could be avoided if the minefields were properly marked, and an awareness programme established.

Meanwhile, another round of border delimitation talks between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan is concluding in Tashkent. One of the Kyrgyz delegation members, speaking on condition of anonymity, told IWPR that the process is moving very slowly and is experiencing a number of difficulties.

"One of the most complicated issues is still the delimitation of Kyrgyz-Uzbek border in the Batken sector," the official said.

The Uzbek foreign affairs ministry's press office said they were only prepared to comment after the negotiations end, but gave no indication when this would be.

Sultan Jumagulov is a BBC stringer in Bishkek, Olga Borisova is an IWPR contributor in Tashkent

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