Central Asia: Fighting Erupts On Tajik-Kyrgyz Border
Unidentified gunmen attacked Tajik and Kyrgyz border posts on May 12, killing a number of servicemen and civilians, on the eve of the anniversary of a bloody crackdown last year that Uzbek authorities laid at the feet of Islamic militants.
The fighting erupted overnight on May 11 along the border that separates southwestern Kyrgyzstan from Tajikistan. A spokesman for Tajikistan's Interior Ministry, Khunoynazar Assozadeh, told RFE/RL's Tajik Service the clashes erupted when gunmen tried to cross the border from Kyrgyzstan.
"An unidentified armed group of more than six people attacked a border post near the village of Lakkon, which is in the Isfarah district of Tajikistan's Soghd province, from Kyrgyz territory," Assozadeh said. "They shot and killed two of [our] border guards and wounded another. They also seized 19 automatic rifles and one heavy-caliber machine gun before [returning to] Kyrgyzstan and heading toward [Kyrgyzstan's] Batken region."
Origin Of Attackers Disputed
But in the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek, officials offered a different account. The deputy commander of Kyrgyz border forces told RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service that the attack originated on Tajik territory. Sadyrbek Dubanaev said fighting then erupted between Kyrgyz troops and the border trespassers.
"Right now [12 p.m., Bishkek time], fighting between those criminals and [our] border guards is continuing," he said. "One criminal was killed, and the rest of the group -- three or four individuals -- are trying to escape toward the mountains."
Dubanaev said one Kyrgyz security officer and one civilian were killed in the exchange of fire. Two Kyrgyz policemen were also wounded.
Kyrgyz media are suggesting that the attackers entered the country aboard several vehicles that they then abandoned.
By mid-afternoon local time, the fighting had reportedly moved far into Kyrgyz territory. Tajikistan nevertheless took steps to beef up security along its border with Kyrgyzstan.
Tajik Interior Ministry spokesman Assozadeh claimed security forces from both countries were involved in a joint operation to capture the gunmen. He gave no further details, and media reports that Kyrgyzstan had allowed Tajik troops onto its territory could not be confirmed.
Link To Kyrgyz Instability?
Tohir Abdujabbor, an independent expert based in the northern Tajik city of Khojand, stressed the precarious situation in Kyrgyzstan, where President Kurmanbek Bakiev is confronted with growing public discontent over rampant crime and corruption. Bakiev this week reshuffled his government and administration to counter the opposition-led pressure.
Abdujabbor suggested a link between Bakiev's predicament and the events of May 12 -- which occurred in an area notorious for drug trafficking. "The personnel changes that took place in the Kyrgyz government may have paved the way for those events," he said. "Also, a number of criminal groupings have divided the region among themselves, and that kind of [unstable] situation suits them very well. It helps them protect their own interests and even try to seize [effective] power."
Return Of IMU?
Today's armed clashes took place in an area of the volatile Ferghana Valley where the borders of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan converge.
Kyrgyz deputy border commander Dubanaev said the overnight attacks were preceded by the storming of an Uzbek border post. But Uzbek security officials could not initially confirm that claim.
Tashtemir Eshaliev, who heads the security and defense department in Batken region, subsequently told RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service that the group was believed to comprise Tajik citizens with suspected links to Islamic militants. He linked the attacks to the Andijon anniversary and said the alleged militants suffered losses while battling Kyrgyz troops.
"They are citizens of Tajikistan, from the town of Kanibadam in Sogdh Province," Eshaliev said, adding: "Their aim is to aggravate the situation in connection with [the May 2005] Andijon events [allegedly in support] of terrorists. This is why they came. These [people] used to work with members of the Hizb ut-Tahrir [radical Islamic grouping] in Uzbekistan. One of them has been arrested and another one had died. We're trying to find the rest of them."
Hizb ut-Tahrir says it seeks the establishment of an Islamic state in the Ferghana Valley, but only through peaceful means. The group is banned in most Central Asian countries, and the Uzbek government has blamed it for the Andijon bloodshed.
Qosimshoh Iskandarov, the chairman of the Center for the Study and Prevention of Conflicts, an independent think tank in Dushanbe, dismissed speculation in comments to RFE/RL's Tajik Service that the Uzbek government might have initiated the May 12 attacks in a bid to justify its heavy-handed tactics against alleged Islamic militants.
"Today's attacks could be the work of either Islamic groupings or criminal gangs involved in drug-smuggling operations," he said. "I know some people -- many, in fact -- are suggesting that those events may be the work of secret services or governments in the region. But I don't think government structures are involved."
Kyrgyz Security Council Secretary Miroslav Niyazov told reporters in Bishkek that he expected the security operation to be over by the end of May 12.
But media reports suggested the fighting continued well after nightfall.
RFE/RLs Dushanbe and Bishkek bureaus contributed to this report.