Batken incidents 1999 – 2000

The extreme south western corner of the country, the mountain slopes forming the southern flanks of the fertile Ferghana valley, used to be part of the Osh oblast.  It is a beautiful and remote location, but also one where the population tends to be poor and often feels neglected by the central government in Bishkek.

The population comprises a complex mix of Kyrgyz, Uzbek and Tajik peoples.  The fact that the international borders sometimes seem arbitrary and the presence of enclaves – parcels of land belonging to one country but totally surrounded by the territory of another – also help to foster ethnic tensions and nationalistic tendencies.
The population in the region also tends to be more religious than elsewhere in the country.  Islam was always stronger amongst the settled people of the Ferghana valley, (mostly Uzbeks), but it also took a stronger hold on the nomadic Kyrgyz than elsewhere.  The region has always been one of the centres of Islamic learning and piety in Central Asia, and one of the centres of opposition and Islamic resistance to the Soviet Union.  For example, it was in this region that the Basmachi rebellion was strongest.  The lifting of Soviet restrictions on religious activity has led to an increase in interest in religious and cultural traditions.

Over the years, poverty, political neglect, nationalism and religion have all fuelled potential discord between the various peoples of the region, and it was into this context that the Batken Incidents erupted in 1999 and 2000.  They took the country by surprise … and have had a significant impact on the Central Asian nations, (not just Kyrgyzstan), and their relations with each other.

The Islamic Movement for Uzbekistan (IMU) is an organization which has been blamed for the Batken incidents of 1999 and 2000.  In addition, the Kyrgyz often refer to Hibz-ut-Tahrir, and “Wahhabis”, (both of which apparently have no formal structure and they are more examples of a “movement” than an organization).  The IMU comprised of young Uzbeks, mainly from the Ferghana valley – and particularly from the Namagan region, who fled the country after their movement was “repressed” by the authorities in 1992.   They trained and fought with groups in Afghanistan, picking up recruits from Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and even from the Arab nations.  The Taliban in Afghanistan denied that they supported the insurgents that crossed into Kyrgyzstan in 1999 and 2000, but despite such denials many “international experts” consider that they received aid not only from the Taliban, but also from other radical Islamic activists, from Arab nations and Pakistan.  Osama bin Laden was reputed to be one of their major sponsors.

Displaced from their camps by events in Afghanistan and Tajikistan, they began to make their way back to Uzbekistan with the aim of fermenting an Islamic uprising, leading to the creation of an Islamic state based on the Ferghana valley.  To get there they had to cross Kyrgyz territory.

The first of the “Batken Incidents” took place in 1999.  A group of between 650 and 1000, (estimates vary), fighters were involved.  They were faced by a large Uzbek force in the valley and so “occupied” areas of the mountains in southern Kyrgyzstan.  They encountered and kidnapped some Japanese geologists, government officials and soldiers.  Over the next two months, protracted negotiations were entered into – and there was some sporadic fighting between the rebels and government forces.  The hostages were released unharmed in stages – roughly at one week intervals.  There were rumours of a large ransom having been paid.  The rebels then relocated back to their bases in Tajikistan – and later to Afghanistan.

About 1000 civilians are estimated to have been displaced as a result of the conflict.

The incident exposed the weakness and lack of preparedness of the Kyrgyz armed forces in being able to handle such a conflict.  President Akaev went on record saying that the incident “had been a lesson”.  (One Kazakh commentator suggested in contrast that the Afghanistan war and the conflict in Chechnya had “not seemed to have taught staff officers anything”.)  The Kyrgyz government began undertaking measures to correct this.  For example, by creating a new regional administration – the Batken oblast – hiving off the region and separating it from Osh in order to strengthen the local administration, help combat poverty in the region and improve the response capabilities in the event of the incursion being repeated.  They also began improving border controls and patrols.

The incident also exposed the differences in approach between the Kyrgyz and Uzbek authorities.  The Uzbeks were more prepared to be ruthless in crushing unsanctioned Islamic practices and protest.  Despite a regional agreement to crush the “terrorist actions” by “using the most decisive measures” regional cooperation was limited.  The Uzbek authorities launched air raids on what they thought were bases on Kyrgyz territory – in some cases bombing villages, and causing casualties and thereby heightening tensions.  They also laid minefields near the border – in some cases across the border inside Kyrgyzstan – and a number of civilians over the years have been injured and killed as they unsuspectingly ventured into them.

Both countries used their domestic judicial systems to crack down on opposition – both Islamic and otherwise.  Both tried to encourage a sense of patriotism and both bolstered their armed services.   In Kyrgyzstan nomadic “scouts” were recruited to help facilitate operations against the rebels.  All the countries in the region increased their military budgets, (in Kazakhstan it was doubled), with training and technical assitance offered by many foreign governments.

In 2000 the insurgents returned.  There were a number of fire fights – some where the insurgents deliberately targeted Kyrgyz military posts.   Once again, however, the main focus of events was on hostages.

Groups of climbers were captured, and held captive.  Some were released and others (including some Americans) managed to effect an escape.  Some of the Americans who were involved later wrote a book about their experiences which was later turned into a film.  Although there has been a certain amount of controversy about the accuracy of their account, it was a worrying and difficult time for all those involved, and their families.

All in all some 49 Kyrgyz soldiers were killed in combat during the 1999 and 2000 incidents.  A memorial was erected in the capital, Bishkek (on the corner of Kievskaya and Logvinenko, outside the Ministry of Defence).

As a result of the Batken Incidents, many governments have placed restrictions,  on their nationals from travelling “to the South and West of Osh”, (or at least advised against it).  Although some of these Travel Warnings are still in place,  there were no more armed incursions until 2006 – and it is likely that this incident may have been connected with organised crime, (drug smuggling), as much as with Islamic militancy.  It seemed as if the activists adopted different, non-military, tactics – concentrating on providing economic help and assistance and participation in democratic elections.  The Ministry of Defence, however, insists that the country’s forces are alert and monitoring the situation for any signs of potential “bandit” activity.

Further advice has warned travellers to be careful in border areas because of the minefields – but in recent years steps have been undertaken to clear the minefields which are said now to have all been removed.

Tags: , ,
Comment closed.