Concerns about Islamic insurgency revived after a group steals Kalashnikovs and takes on Kyrgyz security forces, but some say the raiders were common criminals.
By Bakhtiyor Valiev in Dushanbe and Cholpon Orozobekova in Bishkek for IWPR (22/05/06)
Clashes last week between armed guerrillas and the security forces of both Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have caused dismay in the region, especially in the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek where domestic stability remains a perpetual worry.
Accounts of events on 12 May differ on some details, but according to Tajik and Kyrgyz officials, the men started by raiding a frontier post in northern Tajikistan, leaving three soldiers dead and stealing weapons. They then turned up in Batken, a nearby region of Kyrgyzstan, killing two people working at a customs post.
In response, the Kyrgyz military deployed a force of 300 which combed the area and killed four members of the group, capturing a fifth. Four Kyrgyz soldiers died in the skirmishes, bringing the total death toll to 13.
Although officials have suggested the men could belong to any of several radical groups including the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, IMU, and Hizb-ut-Tahrir, no one is certain whether they have any such affiliation.
The men are not the first to make use of the mountainous terrain, porous borders and jigsaw-like political geography of this part of the Fergana valley, where Batken juts into Tajikistan and Uzbekistan is not far away.
In 1999 and 2000, Batken was the scene of raids mounted from Tajikistan by the IMU, who were repelled by Kyrgyz forces and thus prevented from achieving their stated aim of going on to attack targets inside Uzbekistan. Tajikistan’s northern borders are also on the route used to traffic heroin from Afghanistan to Russia and the West.
The events that unfolded on the Tajik side of the border were outlined at a 16 May press conference by security officers in Khujand, the main town of Sogd region.
Lieutenant-Colonel Odinahmad Malikov, the deputy commander of frontier troops in the region, said at 2.30 in the morning of 12 May, five men drove up to the Lakkon border post in two cars.
They disarmed the sentry on duty, Private Jamol Rustamov, and then shot dead Senior Sergeant Dilshod Rasulov, and wounded soldiers Narzi Hamrokulov and Ahmad Ismatov, who later died from gunshot injuries.
They then broke into the guardroom and took everything that was there – 17 Kalashnikov assault rifles, a PK light machine-gun and 3,000 rounds of ammunition.
Regional police chief Mirzo Murtazaev said it was clear the arms theft was deliberate rather than opportunistic.
The same morning, a group of armed men drove into Kyrgyzstan through the Ak-Turpak checkpoint, killing a customs officer and his civilian assistant who had stopped them to run a vehicle check, and refused to take a bribe to let them pass.
It is unclear how many there were at this stage, but they all appear to have fitted into one car. Soon afterwards, they dumped the vehicle and hijacked a minivan.
Kyrgyz border guards had already been alerted of the earlier attack on their Tajik colleagues, and mounted a pursuit organization. There were several exchanges of fire, and the attackers left their vehicle behind and began retreating into the mountains on foot.
As more Kyrgyz troops were brought in – including elite units of the National Security Service and Ministry of the Interior brought in from Bishkek, as well as the border guards – they captured one of the guerrillas, reportedly because he was under the influence of drugs, and found another dead. They also discovered a number of Kalashnikovs, a radio transmitter, sleeping bags and religious literature in the abandoned minivan.
The remaining members of the group were encircled, but because they were higher up the mountains they had better firing positions, so that fighting continued until evening. Government forces killed three more guerrillas, but lost four of their own men, with eight more injured.
Although only five men were accounted for, and just one car was noted crossing the border, there are some reports that more may have got away in the final skirmish. Kyrgyz interior minister Murat Sutalinov suggested as much, telling reporters that up to ten might have escaped.
Islamic radicals or gangsters?
The latest clash clearly stirs memories of the major IMU attacks of 1999-2000, and is likely to raise fears that Islamic insurgents are on the move again. But how accurate is that assessment?
The identity of the group remained unclear at the time this report was published.
“It’s still too early to say,” said the head of Kyrgyzstan’s Security Council, Miroslav Niazov. “We haven’t yet established who they are or where they come from.”
There was even some dispute where it originated – some Tajik officials have suggested the men were based in Kyrgyzstan and only crossed into Tajikistan briefly to carry out the arms raid. By contrast, Kyrgyz sources indicated that the group only slipped into Batken to put possible pursuers off the scent.
Possible suspects include the IMU, which operated out of Afghanistan and Tajikistan and was a major insurgent force in Central Asia until 2001, when it suffered many casualties and lost its foothold in Afghanistan with the demise of its Taliban allies. Since then, sightings of Uzbeks of the IMU have occasionally been reported in the lawless mountains of northwest Pakistan close to the Afghan border – but the cross-border raids inside Central Asia stopped in 2001.
Tajik police official Murtazaev reported that the man who was captured was listed as an IMU member.
“His identity has been determined as Abdurahim Khojaev, 30, born in the Syrdarya region of Uzbekistan. It is established that he has been a member of the IMU and was on the wanted list. The Tajik and Kyrgyz authorities have launched criminal cases against him,” Murtazaev told the 16 May press conference.
Kyrgyz interior minister Sutalinov muddied the waters somewhat by suggesting that the group involved was the Islamic Movement of Turkistan. This term has in the past has been used to describe an IMU expanded to include other Islamic militants from Central Asia and western China, but it is unclear whether such an organization was ever really formed.
Another covert Islamic group cited as a possible culprit is Hizb-ut-Tahrir, of Middle Eastern origin but active in much of Central Asia, above all Uzbekistan where it persists despite the jailing of hundreds of members. The Uzbek government has linked the banned organization to violence in that country, although little evidence of this is available from independent sources.
Tashtemir Eshaliev, a regional government official in Batken region, told RFE/RL that the attackers were believed to be Tajik nationals with links to Hizb-ut-Tahrir. “They are citizens of Tajikistan, from the town of Kanibadam in Sogd province, [who] used to work with members of Hizb-ut-Tahrir in Uzbekistan,” Eshaliev told the radio station’s Kyrgyz service.
Eshaliev also linked the timing of the attack to the 13 May anniversary of the violence in Andijan last year, when Uzbek security forces are accused of shooting down hundreds of civilian protesters.
More direct evidence about the group’s members was offered by Tajik border guard officer Malikov, who said they included a man from nearby Isfara called Dilshod Rahimov, who had spent some time as a conscript in the frontier troops service, serving at the same post that was attacked.
“He did his service at this frontier checkpoint and was discharged in 2001,” said Malikov. “According to the information in my possession, he was [also] involved in the attack on a detention centre in the town of Kairakkum.”
The incident referred to by Malikov was an attack on a police detention unit in Kairakkum, not far from Khujand, which took place in January 2006. An unidentified group of men stormed the facility, killing its head and freeing one Fathullo Rahimov – believed to be a relative of Dilshod.
Fathullo Rahimov was being held on charges relating to “illegal armed units”, handling illegal weapons and explosives, and making and selling computer hacking software.
None of the attackers in the January attack have been arrested to date, although eight police officers were sacked after the incident.
Malikov, who clearly suspects some of the same individuals were involved in the latest raid, said forensic testing should reveal whether Dilshod Rahimov was among the guerrillas killed by Kyrgyz security forces.
Even if some links to the IMU or Hizb-ut-Tahrir are found, Malikov’s account suggests a largely locally-rooted group of Tajik nationals. The fact that the group consisted of five or six individuals, and the fact that they had to raid a military arsenal to get weapons, suggests that they do not represent a large and well-stocked force.
Former KGB officer Imanberdi Jalilov and journalist Yrysbek Omurzakov both suggested to IWPR that the armed men could have been involved in the narcotics smuggling trade.
“I wouldn’t say they are militants,” said Omurzakov. “Militants wouldn’t be so stupid as to launch attacks immediately, or to move around in groups of five or six people. Everybody knows the drug trafficking route runs through Batken. I think they were couriers, or rather trafficking spies trying to find out how open the border is.”
At the same time, there is a strong sense in Kyrgyzstan that the country’s southern region remains vulnerable to insurgency, among other forms of political instability. “Certain destructive elements may have decided to test their strength and also check the extent to which the state border is guarded,” political scientist Toktogul Kakcheev told IWPR.
Militant Islam remains so potent a concept in Central Asia that events such as the latest raid can sometimes be assigned more significance than they deserve, either because of genuine fears or because governments tend to surround the issue with a good deal of spin.
Kyrgyz parliamentary deputy Kubatbek Baibolov, for one, remains sceptical about the Islamic radical dimension. “The Kyrgyz authorities make a habit of inventing all sorts of tales about international terrorists whenever anything happens,” he said. “There was no IMU here. They were just common [criminal] bandits.
“What’s terrible is that the Kyrgyz military weren’t able to deal with these bandits without suffering casualties. Losing six of your boys in one run-of-the-mill operation is shameful.”
Politicians say military response was inadequate
In Kyrgyzstan, questions are now being asked about how effective the military response was.
The country’s defense establishment was heavily criticized for struggling to cope with the larger attacks of 1999-2000. This time round, the military seems to have deployed fairly promptly in substantial numbers, and did appear to kill or capture most of the guerrillas.
But members of the Kyrgyz parliament used a 15 May session to express outrage at the casualties their own troops suffered.
Deputy Dooronbek Sadyrbaev spoke of “talentless generals” who should be “stripped of their ranks”.
His colleague Muratbek Mukashev noted that President Kurmanbek Bakiev had thanked the senior commanders in charge of the search-and-destroy mission. “This gratitude was over-hasty,” he said. “This matter cannot be left unattended to.”
Non-government groups added their voices, sending an open letter to Bakiev accusing defence and security chiefs of allowing militants to infiltrate the country and kill Kyrgyz soldiers.
However, in an interview for IWPR, Defence Minister Ismail Isakov rejected the charges, saying the main thing was that the servicemen who died had done their duty. “The criticism from the deputies is just idle talk,” he said.
This article originally appeared in Reporting Central Asia produced by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR). Reporting Central Asia is supported by the UK Foreign Office and the US State Department.