Death tolls in Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan fighting lay bare scale of conflict
Both sides have accused one another of targeting homes and civilian infrastructure.
Negotiations between security officials from Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan early on September 17, just after midnight, bought some hours of tranquility on the border, but the situation nevertheless remained tense and prone to a descent into fresh fighting.
A few hours after daybreak, the Kyrgyz State Committee for National Security, or GKNB, accused Tajik troops of breaking the cease-fire by peppering the village of Pasky-Aryk, which lies along a particularly fraught area of the disputed frontier, with mortar fire. The shelling began at 8:50 a.m. Kyrgyz time (0250 GMT) and lasted five minutes, the GKNB said.
Death toll figures released overnight have begun to give some indication of the scale of the unrest, which both governments blamed one another for initiating.
Kyrgyzstan’s Health Ministry says at least 24 of its citizens have been killed during the fighting. More than 100 people have been admitted to hospitals for treatment, mostly for gunshot and shrapnel wounds, health officials said.
Kyrgyz fatalities have been recorded in the Batken and Leilek districts, which lie around a two-hour drive apart, a troubling indication of the territorial spread of the fighting.
Tracking the human cost of the crisis on the Tajik side has been more complicated as the government in Dushanbe has largely conducted itself with its characteristic nebulousness.
Kyrgyz GKNB chief Kamchybek Tashiyev has warned that the death tally will almost certainly turn out to be much greater than what has been stated so far as he could not give a definitive figure for how many soldiers have been killed in the hostilities.
"I'll say frankly that we still do not know the exact number of dead servicemen, but there are many of them. There are many who are wounded,” Tashiyev said in televised remarks.
While rage is mounting among Kyrgyz citizens at what is being described as little short of a Tajik invasion, officials in Bishkek have sought to stress that their priority is on de-escalation, not reprisals.
In the evening of September 16, Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov, who had by then returned to Bishkek from a Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Samarkand, summoned a meeting of the national security council. Japarov’s office said the meeting was devoted to discussing measures to prevent further escalation.
A senior government source told Eurasianet that the country’s leadership is reluctant to engage in “a public blame game” about who provoked the violence.
Later that night, around half an hour of talks were held at the Guliston-Avtodorozhny border checkpoint between the head of the Kyrgyz border service, Ularbek Sharsheyev, and his Tajik counterpart, Rajabali Rahmonali. The two sides agreed to take efforts to prevent provocations and the use of firearms on the Kyrgyz-Tajik border. A joint operation headquarters was reportedly established at the crossing with a view to coordinating actions.
Even after that delicate arrangement was put together, however, Kyrgyz security officials continued accusing the Tajiks of trying to ratchet up tensions. In a statement released before dawn, they accused Tajik civilians of setting light to their own homes in an attempt to sow more discord and incite fresh violence.
“[This is] a premeditated provocation” intended to blame Kyrgyzstan for destroying Tajik homes, the Kyrgyz security services said.
Civil society in Kyrgyzstan has bristled at characterizations of the ongoing events as a mere repetition of the kind of border skirmishes the area has seen repeatedly over the past few decades. The widely shared consensus is that Tajikistan has embarked on a deliberate attempt to extend its territorial holdings.
“Let's be clear, the current Tajikistan military [aggression] is not a border conflict. Tajikistan is trying to invade the non-disputed long-established territories of Kyrgyzstan,” Rahat Sabyrbekov, an economist, wrote on Twitter.
Images of Tajik irregular fighters and army troops celebrating or vandalizing homes in Kyrgyz villages that have been circulating across social media have lent some weight to this position.
As of the morning of September 17, Tajik officials had not divulged any information about how many of their own citizens and troops had been either killed or injured. Dushanbe-based media sought out accounts from residents of locations affected by fighting in an attempt to get a partial picture.
Asia-Plus newspaper cited residents of the Tajik town of Ovchi Kalacha, around 20 kilometers south of Khujand, the capital of the northern Sughd region, as saying more than 10 local people were killed as a result of an alleged drone strike.
“After the announcement of a ceasefire, residents came out onto the street and at that time a Kyrgyz drone launched a strike. More than 10 people died as a result. Drones are being used to target homes and civilian infrastructure,” the outlet cited a local resident as saying.
In another report, Asia-Plus cited residents of the town of Chorkuh, which lies about 80 kilometers east of Ovchi Kalacha, as saying that four people were killed when an ambulance headed to a hospital in the nearby town of Isfara was targeted with a grenade launcher. A doctor, the driver, and two patients were killed, Asia-Plus quoted its source as saying.
Claims that the Kyrgyz armed forces have used unmanned aerial craft to attack Tajik territory could not be independently verified. The charge echoes allegations leveled by the Tajik security services, which have also accused Kyrgyz forces of using attack helicopters against civilians.
Kyrgyzstan has certainly sought to convey the impression that it has the ability to deploy drones in defense of its border. On September 13, one day before the first bout of fighting along the border, Japarov and Tashiyev attended a ceremony to mark the opening of a base for the use of their recently acquired Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2 unmanned aerial vehicles.
Japarov said in a speech at the base opening ceremony that “ensuring the security of the borders of Kyrgyzstan is considered one of the state’s priorities.”
Calls for an immediate de-escalation of tensions have arrived from multiple partners of the combatant nations. The European Union warned that the unrest was “detrimental to regional stability.”
“We call on both parties to ensure effective implementation of the ceasefire and spare no effort to de-escalate the tensions and reach a sustainable solution to existing differences as soon as possible,” the EU said in a statement on September 16.
Turkey’s Foreign Ministry expressed concern over the situation and said it hoped the trouble could be “resolved peacefully through dialogue."
Russia had offered two days earlier to assist in brokering an end to the tensions.
“We express our readiness to assist the parties in arriving at a long-term and mutually acceptable solution to border issues through reliance on Russia’s rich experience in border demarcation,” the Foreign Ministry in Moscow said in a statement on September 14.
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