Kyrgyzstan tries to squeeze Islamic extremists in Central Asia
Deadline is Friday for radical groups to turn themselves in. Officials say the groups aim to overthrow the secular regime.
OSH, KYRGYZSTAN — Kyrgyz authorities have issued an ultimatum to Islamic extremists, including one Al Qaeda-linked group, to turn themselves in by Friday, in an effort to quash what they say is a growing militant threat in ex-Soviet Central Asia.
Authorities say that extremists are trying to set up a base here to overthrow Kyrgyzstan's secular post-Soviet government, as well as those in neighboring Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, and create an Islamic state.
But observers say that the government's harsh methods – in a country that has had a traditionally tolerant and secular Sunni Muslim population – are creating more radicals than they are eliminating, and igniting ethnic tensions in the Ferghana Valley, a volatile, diverse region shared by Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.
The crackdown is also part of a series of incidents suggesting Kyrgyzstan's turn from the West, and the US in particular, and embrace of Russia and Uzbekistan.
Law-enforcement bodies have fought pitched battles with gunmen in recent months. In May, armed individuals overran Kyrgyz and Tajik border posts, killing three Tajik border guards and a Kyrgyz customs official. In July, Kyrgyz security forces killed five suspected members of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), a group that fought beside the Taliban in Afghanistan.
"We are reaching critical mass of armed people in the region," says Martha Brill Olcott, an expert with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. "I think there could be a wave of acts of violence in Central Asia."
On August 6, authorities shot Muhammadrafik Kamalov, an ethnic Uzbek, and two passengers while they were driving in his car. Kamalov, a popular imam in the Ferghana Valley, belonged to a banned extremist group, officials claimed, and his passengers were IMU members. Kamalov's supporters say that their leader was not affiliated with any group and had no connection with the two men found with him.
The incident amplified concerns that simmering religious and communal tensions could spill over into violence. The anti-extremist campaign has largely targeted ethnic Uzbeks, who tend to be more observant than the Kyrgyz. Thousands of Uzbeks turned out for Kamalov's funeral to express their outrage.
Kamalov's son, Muhammad Rashod, who succeeded his father as head of the As-Sarakhsiy mosque, says the government has created the threat. "There are no terrorists with guns in their hands in our Kyrgyzstan," says the younger Mr. Kamalov. "But if there continue to be actions of this kind, such groups will emerge – wounded hearts will have their vengeance."
The Kamalov killing also underlines a shift in regional alliances. Kyrgyz and Uzbek security services worked together in the operation, indicating that Kyrgyzstan, after years of a predominantly pro-Western policy, has thrown its lot in with Uzbekistan and Russia, Uzbekistan's closest ally.
The Kyrgyz, in violation of international law, also returned five Andijan refugees from a brutal crackdown in the Uzbek city of Andijan while another five asylum seekers have gone missing – kidnapped, it is feared, and ensconced in Uzbek jails.
At the same time, relations with the US have soured. Bishkek expelled two US diplomats in July – the first expulsion ever by a Central Asian state. Washington responded by ejecting two Kyrgyz officials.
Relations between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan were frosty after Bishkek sheltered hundreds of refugees from Andijan, and after the "Tulip Revolution" deposed longtime leader Askar Akayev.
But Kyrgyz officials, under strong Uzbek pressure, now seem to hold the view that militant Islam as well as non- violent political Islam constitute a threat.
Along with the IMU, Bishkek, as well as other Central Asia regimes, has targeted Hizb-ut-Tahrir, a London-based group that aims to unite the world's Muslims in a single sharia-law state. Hizb-ut-Tahrir members say they will achieve this by peaceful means, though their rhetoric is often virulently anti-Western and antidemocratic.
Kyrgyz law-enforcement officials say that Hizb-ut-Tahrir has split, and a number of members now support violence. Organization representatives deny this.
Michael Hall, Central Asia director of the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, says that the region's authoritarian regimes are afraid of the political challenge the movements pose, which has arisen from corruption and economic stagnation.
"These regimes don't like opposition, period," Mr. Hall says. "If today that comes in the form of Islamic radicals, that's sort of the threat du jour."
"You also have to see it from the point of view of these movements' supporters," he adds. "These are people for whom Islam, even radical Islam, represents justice, fairness, and accountability on the part of their governments – and they are not seeing that right now."