The armed forces of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan committed war crimes during a four-day border conflict in September that claimed more than 100 lives, Human Rights Watch claimed in a report published on May 2.
Drawing on photographic and video evidence and dozens of on-the-ground testimonies, the New York-based rights group alleged in its report, titled “When We Moved, They Shot,” that the actions of military personnel led to the avoidable killing of civilians and the destruction of homes on both sides of the border.
HRW documented instances in which Kyrgyz troops used a drone to direct a laser-guided bomb at a town square crowded with civilians and appeared to fire deliberately at ambulances and private cars carrying civilians.
Tajik forces, meanwhile, engaged in deadly actions seemingly designed to clear Kyrgyz territory of residents, the group said.
Based on video evidence and testimonies, HRW asserted that groups of people in civilian clothing operating in view of Tajik forces engaged in mass looting and set light to hundreds of buildings in Kyrgyzstan, including kindergartens, schools, health clinics and offices. Tajik gunmen too targeted cars full of civilians and killed numerous civilians across disparate locations, HRW said.
HRW’s analysis of the conduct of Kyrgyz troops focused in detail on one incident that took place on the afternoon of September 16 in the Tajik village of Ovchi Kalacha, where at least 10 civilians are believed by the group’s researchers to have been killed in a bomb attack.
Analyzing photographic evidence of the aftermath, the report’s authors concluded that the blast was the result of deployment of an MAM-L laser-guided bomb fired from either a Bayraktar TB-2 drone or another light aircraft. Kyrgyz border forces, which operate under the auspices of the State Committee for National Security, or GKNB, are known to have MAM-L-armed Bayraktar drones.
“The attack, the first of two strikes on the square that day, may have been targeting a Tajik armored vehicle and other military vehicles that had just arrived at the square, but the area was also full of civilians,” HRW stated in its report. “About two hours before, the heads of the State Committees for National Security of the two countries had announced a ceasefire, so residents of the town had emerged from their places of shelter. Dozens of people were gathered in the square, including those who were leaving a mosque after the funeral service of a woman who had been killed by a stray bullet earlier that day.”
Jean-Baptiste Gallopin, a senior researcher at HRW, argued that the drone’s operators would have been in a good position to ascertain whether or not the people on the square were combatants and if they therefore constituted a legitimate military target.
“We know from … our knowledge of this munition that it is guided… with a live video feed, which could have given the operator a clear view of the location where the strike took place. The video has definition that is good enough to see whether the people on the square were carrying weapons or not,” Gallopin told Eurasianet.
HRW contends this type of attack constitutes a clear breach of international humanitarian law by knowingly targeting “an area containing a concentration of civilians and civilian objects.”
The killing of Kyrgyz civilians by Tajik troops and irregulars as documented by HRW, meanwhile, appear to hint at an indiscriminate and erratic campaign. Civilians young and elderly were singled out for what looked like executions.
“Human Rights Watch documented six killings of Kyrgyzstan civilians during the Tajik occupation of Kyrgyzstani villages on September 16 and 17,” the report found. “In two cases, Tajik forces shot at men while they were fleeing on foot, killing three. In two other cases, older men were killed in their homes; the locations of the bodies and the injuries suggested that they had been killed at close range while defenseless.”
Video footage, satellite images and first-hand testimonies pointed to what looked like a well-planned routine overseen by Tajik forces.
“When Tajik forces entered Kyrgyz-held territory on September 16, they were followed in some places by people in civilian clothes speaking Tajik. Although Tajik control lasted less than 24 hours, in that time the Kyrgyz village of Kapchygai and a vast majority of the villages of Bakai and Dostuk (Batken district) were systematically burned down,” HRW found. “Civilian infrastructure was deliberately destroyed in at least four other villages, with entire neighborhoods in Arka, Min Oruk, and Ak-Sai being burned down.”
Kyrgyzstan’s government informed HRW that hundreds of homes, along with 12 schools, nine kindergartens, and six medical facilities were torched. Officials also pointed to evidence of extensive pillaging of Kyrgyz villages.
Residents interviewed by the report’s authors believe the intent of the systematic way in which the attacks were carried out is clear.
“They burned our houses to decrease our spirit, so we leave our places,” Altynay Kamchiyeva, a 34-year-old schoolteacher in the border village of Arka, told HRW. “If we leave our places, they can easily occupy [them].”
The extensive destruction of homes and theft of property not justified by military necessity can be classified as a war crime, HRW said.
The killings perpetrated in September have only served to deepen mutual suspicions between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, rendering the prospect of a peaceful and negotiated demarcation of the disputed border only more remote.
More effort has been invested into bolstering offensive capabilities.
Each major flare-up of violence between the two countries has seen the deployment of ever-more powerful and sophisticated weapons.
Last month, the Turkish manufacturers of Bayraktar drones of the type apparently used in the Ovchi Kalacha attack announced that an unspecified number of Kyrgyz operators had completed training on use of the aircraft.
Tajikistan, meanwhile, is known to host a facility for the production of Iranian-designed Ababil-2 tactical drones – a fact that has drawn the disapproval of the U.S. government.
In its report, HRW singled out the European Union in particular as a potentially useful mediator. The rights group urged the EU to “press for the border demarcation process to respect the human rights of civilians living in the region.”
“Progress in this area should be considered during the finalization or negotiation of Enhanced Partnership and Cooperation Agreements with both countries and their ratification by EU member states and the European Parliament,” HRW said.