Kyrgyz officials are playing down reports that the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) have opened their summer offensive operations. IMU militants reportedly exchanged gunfire during the night of July 24-25 with Kyrgyz troops near the Gomush pass in the Alai mountains. According to sources, Kyrgyz soldiers opened fire after spotting IMU militants attempting to infiltrate the area. The two sides traded fire for several hours before IMU forces retreated. Two Kyrgyz soldiers were wounded. There was no way to verify any IMU casualties.
There were also reports of clashes during the night of July 25-26 near the mountain pass at Telbe, and around the border village of Zardaly, according to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. However, those reports were vigorously denied by Kyrgyz authorities. In addition, some officials deny that IMU fighters participated in the July 24-25 clash, asserting instead that narcotics traffickers were involved.
Kyrgyz Interior Minister Tashtemir Aytbayev told Kyrgyz radio on July 25 that border troops were well prepared to repel IMU infiltration attempts. "We built many outposts and established reliable groups of troops that are capable of fighting in mountainous terrain," Aytbayev said. "If there are any attempts [to infiltrate] there will be repulsed very resolutely much more resolutely than last year."
Regional observers have long expected the IMU, which aims to oust the Uzbek government of Islam Karimov, to undertake insurgent operations for the third successive summer. Last year, IMU insurgents launched wide-scale guerilla attacks in the Surkhandariya, Tashkent, Andijan and Kamchik areas of Uzbekistan, and in the Batken and Chatkal areas of Kyrgyzstan. Some local commentators suggest that IMU actions in Kyrgyzstan are designed to embroil Bishkek in a wider regional conflict.
Kyrgyzstan's government has tried to avoid becoming entangled in the IMU insurgency. While officials have taken steps to bolster defense capabilities, they have also made overtures to the IMU about negotiating a non-violence pact, according to Kyrgyz parliament member Tursunbay Bakir Uulu. However, negotiation prospects dimmed after a Kyrgyz military court sentenced two captured IMU fighters to death for their participation in last summer's raids. IMU leaders denounced the court verdict and appealed to Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev to show mercy on the militants. The IMU has warned of retaliation if the death sentences are carried out.
IMU incursions have fueled mistrust among Central Asian governments, hindering the effectiveness of multilateral defensive operations. For example, Kyrgyzstan has charged that the IMU has used Tajikistan as a springboard for insurgent activity. Tajik officials have routinely denied that IMU fighters have bases in Tajikistan.
"There are no fighters of [IMU leader] Juma Namangani near the Tajik-Kyrgyz border nor are there any of them on Tajik territory," Tajik security council secretary Amirkul Azimov said on July 25. Nevertheless, a Kyrgyz intelligence source says the militants attempted to enter Kyrgyz territory from Tajikistan. Units led by field commanders Yunus Abdrakhmanov, whose nom de guerre is Red Beard, and Bakhtiyor, are massed in the border area, the source says.
Some observers in Batken say IMU military operations in the area are alienating local inhabitants. Following reports of the latest clashes, up to 150 young people from the Haidarken area of Batken appealed to local authorities for weapons. They also reportedly volunteered to help fight against IMU incursions.
Arslan Koichiev is a freelance journalist who specializes in Central Asian affairs.
Sign up for Eurasianet's free weekly newsletter.