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Vigilantes Net Uzbek Border Guards

Uzbekistan's conscript frontier guards are widely seen as a nuisance in neighbouring Kyrgyzstan.
By Ulugbek Babakulov

Tired of being harassed by Uzbek border guards, Kyrgyz villagers got their own back this month. Taking the law into their hands, they jumped two of them and took their weapons. Now, they have received official recognition of their bravery - and more locals may be inspired to take similar action.


Trouble has grown on stretches of the Uzbek/Kyrgyz frontier since the two republics became independent in 1991. The Uzbek border guards, mostly conscripts, harass civilians and extort money.


The latest incident early last month began as a hunt for three cattle, stolen from the border village of Aral, in the Nooken region of Kyrgyzstan.


Half a km from the Uzbek frontier, Kadyrbek Suleimanov and his son, who were tracking the cows, came across two Uzbek border guards who tried to take the younger man's bicycle.


When Suleimanov intervened, one of the soldiers aimed a gun at him. In spite of the danger, he pushed the weapon aside. The guard opened fire. And somehow Suleimanov managed to grab it and run for the border post. When he saw the second soldier beating his son, he dashed back and seized his gun as well.


The two men hurried to the local police station, followed by the border guards, who pleaded with them to stop, begged for their weapons. The man and his son ignored them and handed in the guns and ammunition.


Bishkek officials have launched a criminal case against the Uzbek border troops, charging them with committing criminal acts. The local police chief, Mukhiddin Tashbaev, said they unlawfully entered Kyrgyz territory and were guilty of the wanton use of firearms. The local authorities commended the two brave civilians.


It is not the first time guns have been fired in border affrays. Earlier this year, residents in the Suzak region said Uzbek soldiers told them they were watering their horses too close to the border. After a heated argument shots were fired. No one was hurt.


Kyrgyzstan's police chief has unofficially warned his officers not to enter the region for the time being in case of revenge attacks and kidnappings. "Uzbek border guards may try and hunt down our police," a Kyrgyz police spokesman said. "If they caught anyone they could demand his exchange for their guns."


The investigation is unlikely to finish soon. It must do the rounds of the Kyrgyz public prosecutor's office, its Uzbek counterpart and various local courts.


Indira Raimberdieva, of the Kyrgyz conflict-resolution body Group For Building Peace, believes the latest incident reflects a wider problem. "What happened with the Suleimanovs is the result of the fact that the Uzbek army has absolutely no control over its soldiers," she said.


Far from being an isolated incident, border conflicts are becoming more common, straining relations between Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan.


The case received wide publicity in Kyrgyzstan, where the problem of border harassment is seen as endemic. The public remains keen to see how the case against the Uzbek guards ends.


The danger is that the affair will encourage vigilantes, now that the men who confronted the guards have been held up as heroes. The worry is that more Kyrgyz civilians will try the same tactics, spelling yet more border strife.


Ulugbek Babakulov is an IWPR contributor


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