Four days after the mysterious, violent deaths of 11 men near Kyrgyzstan’s border with China, key questions remain unanswered – like why none of the men, whom Kyrgyz officials suspect of decapitating a local hunter and plotting terrorism, could be taken alive. In a country where conspiracy theories flourish and distrust of authorities abounds, many Kyrgyz, including some lawmakers, seem to doubt official explanations.
"There's a lot that's not clear. There are no witnesses. We don't know whom to believe. Some people say one thing, others say something completely different,” Kyrgyz lawmaker Nurlan Torbekov, an Afghan war vet, was quoted as saying by Kloop.kg on January 27.
Kyrgyzstan’s State Border Service says the men, tentatively identified as ethnic Uighurs, crossed over from China’s Xinjiang Province and were carrying belongings that indicate they harbored “extremist” views – prayer rugs, a Koran, knives, masks, a compass, and more.
The group, described initially as “armed,” had one gun. They had stolen it from the Kyrgyz hunter, Alexander Barykin, whom they allegedly killed early on January 23 about 40 kilometers inside Kyrgyz territory after he killed two of them. Later that day, the remaining nine suspects in Barykin’s murder were “liquidated” by border troops, the only witnesses.
Officials in Kyrgyzstan say they have killed 11 unidentified attackers in a remote mountain valley near China, sparking a storm of speculation but providing very little concrete information about what happened or how.
The State Border Service said in a statement that the members of a “criminal gang” had been killed while putting up resistance on January 23 at an isolated frontier post, some 40 kilometers from the Chinese border, after they had killed a hunter and used his gun against border troops.
It’s unclear what the alleged attackers, nationality unknown, were doing running around in the dead of winter in a remote region where mountain valleys average above 3,500 meters (11,500 feet), but Kyrgyz media, officials and talking heads were happy to spend the day speculating, pontificating, and criticizing the bizarre situation.
Governor Emil Kaptagaev of Issyk-Kul Province, where the incident took place, started the guesswork off provocatively when he suggested the group could be Uighur militants from China. (No stranger to drama, Kaptagaev made headlines last autumn when he was kidnapped and doused with petrol by match-wielding constituents demanding the nationalization of a Canadian-run gold mine not far from Thursday’s shootout.)
Nearly a week after a border shootout between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, Dushanbe admitted firing mortars, raising the specter of further militarization along the disputed frontier. And conflicting stories about exactly what happened have developed into a heated diplomatic row with the potential to do long-lasting damage to once-decent ties.
On January 17, six days after the violence, a Tajik official finally commented on allegations that his troops had fired mortar rounds at Kyrgyz border guards. Yes, Tajikistan did, said Major-General Sharaf Faizullayev, first deputy commander of Tajikistan’s border troops. But the outnumbered Tajiks used mortars only to protect themselves after first being fired upon by Kyrgyz sharpshooters and without the intention to hurt anyone, he said.
"Given the numerical superiority of the Kyrgyz border guards and the intensity of their fire, a decision was made to use a small-caliber mortar to curb [the Kyrgyz’s] fire with the aim of evacuating the wounded," Faizullayev said in comments carried by Dushanbe’s Asia-Plus news agency. He added that the fighting occurred on Tajik territory.
Days after an agreement that had the potential to ease tensions on the disputed border between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, a shootout between the countries’ border guards left several injured on each side January 11, local media report. In what could herald a sharp escalation in the simmering conflict, a Kyrgyz official has alleged that Tajik troops used heavy weapons.
As usual, there are conflicting stories over how the violence started.
Several Kyrgyz news outlets reported that Tajik border guards shot first after an altercation over road construction on contested territory. The 24.kg news agency said at least five Kyrgyz guards were wounded and that angry local civilians were protesting in the village of Kok-Tash.
Citing a local Tajik resident, Tajikistan’s Asia-Plus news agency also reported that Tajik guards clashed with their counterparts over the construction of a road through disputed territory. But in this account, Kyrgyz border guards fired first, wounding two Tajik guards.
Soviet map of the Fergana Valley circa 1930. Many of these borders later changed. Vorukh (Варух), for example, is now a Tajik exclave surrounded by Kyrgyzstan.
No villagers were taken hostage this time. No one got shot. But a disputed parcel of the populous Fergana Valley, where there is little government, little water, and little arable land, has seen yet another dicey ethnic standoff in recent days.
This time, after an arson attack allegedly destroyed a Kyrgyz teahouse in a disputed spot on the Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan frontier, local Kyrgyz reportedly blamed an ethnic Tajik and blocked the only road to a Tajik exclave, Vorukh. Some reports said Tajiks then blocked a road connecting the Kyrgyz village, Ak-Sai, with the regional seat of government, Batken.
Vorukh, home to approximately 30,000 Tajik citizens, is surrounded entirely by Kyrgyzstan. Though the status of the exclave is not in dispute, the land surrounding it, including most of Ak-Sai, is. During the regulardisputes, Kyrgyz living in Ak-Sai – situated in a narrow valley of apricot orchards – can besiege Vorukh. They reportedly reopened the road on December 21.
The prejudice (and sometimes violence) faced by labor migrants from Uzbekistan abroad is well-documented. But the trials and tribulations they face just leaving home is less publicized.
Most migrants heading to Russia first cross the border between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan at Chernyayevka, near Tashkent.
Thousands of people mass every day at Chernyayevka, which is the old Soviet name for a village now called Gisht-Kuprik on the Uzbek side and Zhibek Zholy in Kazakhstan.
On a recent November afternoon the crowds – travelers visiting relatives and taking trips as well as labor migrants – were waiting several hours just to leave Uzbekistan.
The longest line was to enter the border crossing: Hundreds of people massed outside in a disorderly queue, which patrolling border guards made no attempts to control other than to open the gates and allow around 10 people through every five minutes or so. It’s a survival-of-the-fittest exercise: Every time the gates open, the line surges forward and the strongest push the weakest back in order to fight closer to the front.
Verbal arguments frequently break out among frustrated travelers, and the occasional scuffle too. One woman fainted in the crush, but the patrolling border guard refused to allow her to bypass the line. The guard intervened only once, when, unable to bear the wait any longer, one couple gave up and climbed over the barrier to leave. “What are you doing?” he shouted at them. “Going home,” replied the man. “This is impossible!”
Uzbekistan's customs declaration: All kinds of pitfalls for the unwary traveler.
Uzbekistan’s new currency restrictions have generated some bafflement inside the country, as EurasiaNet.org has already reported – but confusion over the Byzantine regulations regulating the sale and movement of dollars and other currencies, including the Uzbek som, is nothing new.
That bewilderment helps fuel a booming business at Uzbekistan’s main land border with Kazakhstan, where intermediaries are on hand to help the perplexed traveler navigate the obligatory customs forms – for a small consideration, naturally.
The intermediaries, all from Uzbekistan, accost travellers on both sides of the Chernyayevka border post near Tashkent and are also present in the Uzbek customs section, where officials presumably turn a blind eye in exchange for a share in the profits.
The form fillers offer assistance in navigating the Byzantine bureaucracy for a fee of 100 tenge (about 65 cents) or 2,000 sums ($1 at the official rate or around 80 cents at the black market rate).
On a recent Saturday afternoon they were doing a roaring trade. But why would anyone pay someone to fill in a form he could just complete himself, I asked one matronly Uzbek woman who approached me offering her services.
“Different reasons,” she said. “Some don’t have a pen, others have forgotten their glasses, a few can’t write.” She and her giggling colleagues were performing a “public service,” she joked with a flash of gold teeth.
Uzbekistan is planning a rail link over a mountain pass that would link Tashkent directly to its territories in the Fergana Valley, bypassing the current line through Tajikistan, according to media reports.
Uzbekistan controls all of Tajikistan’s railway border crossings and often uses them as leverage over its poorer southeastern neighbor. It’s not unusual for Uzbekistan, trying to stymie Tajikistan’s plans to build a massive hydropower plant upstream, to cite “technical problems”, “terrorist sabotage”, or “weather delays” as reasons for extended closures at the border crossings.
Tajikistan maintains some leverage in these disputes thanks to the 70-mile stretch of the Fergana main line that crosses its territory. Uzbekistan’s Fergana Valley population of some 10 million relies on this line for its fuel supplies. Tajikistan also needs the line because factories and farms in Sughd Province and Khujand produce much of the country’s modest exportable goods base, including consumer items, processed foods, and clothing.
Thus, rail access for both countries is predicated on cooperation to keep the line open. An official from the Sughd Free Economic Zone once insisted to me that complications were overblown, and that Uzbekistan and Tajikistan “need each other.”
Kyrgyz villagers in a troubled border region are experiencing food, fuel and medicine shortages, local media reported today, as a state of emergency in southern Kyrgyzstan continues. In Bishkek, officials say they have made no progress getting their Uzbek counterparts to reopen the frontier after Tashkent unilaterally closed most checkpoints on January 17.
The latest tensions date to January 5, when residents of Sokh, an Uzbek enclave surrounded by Kyrgyz territory, reportedly attacked Kyrgyz border guards who were installing electrical wires on a contested piece of territory. The next day locals took several dozen Kyrgyz hostage and destroyed their vehicles.
Though the hostages were quickly released and the Kyrgyz received compensation for their damaged property (reportedly collected from Sokh’s residents, who are mostly ethnic Tajiks), troubles remain in this Ferghana Valley flashpoint.
Sokh is a strategic parcel of land. A 350-square-kilometer valley blessed with water in a parched agricultural region, it basically cuts Kyrgyzstan’s Batken Province in half. The only all-weather Kyrgyz road passes through this Uzbek territory, meaning Kyrgyz traveling between Batken, perhaps Kyrgyzstan’s poorest province, and Osh must stop at Uzbek checkpoints. As the population grows, and land and water become scarcer, the region seethes and occasionally erupts in violence.
Seven citizens of Kazakhstan who strayed into Turkmenistan accidentally have been jailed for seven years, reports western Kazakhstan’s Lada newspaper, quoting an unnamed relative of one of the detainees.
The group includes four law-enforcement officers who were working in the border area, and three hunters who were in their company for reasons yet to be established. The four officers had been sent to a border district with Turkmenistan on the hunt for illegal migrants and wanted criminals, Mangystau Region police chief Kayrat Otebay said following their October 19 arrest.
Otebay said the law-enforcement officers were headed to Kazakhstan’s Boget border unit but lost their way in the desert. Officials have yet to establish why they had teamed up with the three hunters, but there has been speculation the officers were giving them a lift.
Confirming the arrest a week after it happened, the Turkmen Foreign Ministry said the seven had been arrested for “illegally crossing the state border and penetrating three kilometers into the territory of Turkmenistan.” It also said they were carrying firearms.
The group received prison terms of seven years after a trial in the Caspian city of Turkmenbashi, Lada quoted the sister of one of the detained Kazakhs as saying. The newspaper, which is based in Kazakhstan’s Caspian city of Aktau, did not identify the source by name.