Are anti-Taliban operations in far-away Pakistan prompting Uzbek Islamic militants to flee safe havens in the Southwest Asian nation's tribal areas and to return to Central Asia? A suicide bombing in Andijan, as well as an armed clash between gunmen and security forces in the Uzbek border town of Khanabad, suggests this may be a possibility.
Some portions of the Ferghana Valley were under lockdown conditions on May 26 following the violent confrontation in Khanabad, a major crossing point on Uzbekistan's frontier with Kyrgyzstan. Besides maintaining a heavy presence in Khanabad, security troops and police were out in force in major cities throughout the Uzbek portion of the Ferghana Valley. For example, tanks and armored vehicles were deployed in Andijan, the city where security forces carried out a massacre of civilian demonstrators in May of 2005. Heavily armed troops patrolled the city's streets and police established checkpoints throughout the valley. In addition, the entire length of Kyrgyz-Uzbek border is sealed. And sources in Uzbekistan told EurasiaNet that mobile phone communication were being blocked and news web sites were being censored.
The official Uzbek news agency UzA reported that a suicide bomber detonated himself on Fitrat Street in central Andijan on the afternoon of May 26. The blast killed at least one police officer and wounded multiple bystanders. No group immediately claimed responsibility for the explosion.
The clash in Khanabad reportedly erupted in the early hours of May 26. A group of heavily armed militants, numbering perhaps as many as 25, reportedly attacked the local police headquarters, the border checkpoint and, according to some reports, besieged the local office of the State Security Service, or SNB. The militants reportedly used rocket-propelled grenades in their attack. Residents on the Kyrgyz side reported hearing a powerful explosion during the pre-dawn hours.
Four Uzbek security services personnel were wounded in action, according to initial reports. Uzbek officials confirmed only that an armed incident took place at the border, but they downplayed its significance, insisting that it involved only two attackers and no casualties.
Security forces appeared to restore order by daybreak, according to observers who could glimpse events in Khanabad from the Kyrgyz side of the border. A Kyrgyz security source told EurasiaNet the situation on the border remained "calm but tense." A statement issued by the Kyrgyz Border Service reported that there was no "increased flow of people into the Kyrgyz Republic."
President Islam Karimov apparently deemed the security situation to be sufficiently favorable that he decided to stick to his schedule and make a May 27-29 state visit to Brazil. But while Uzbek authorities certainly seem in control, what prompted the militant outburst remains a mystery.
Tension seemed to be brewing in Uzbekistan in the days and weeks before the clash. A security source in Tashkent suggested that "a lot of arrests" had been made in the Andijan region, and other locations in Uzbekistan, in the weeks prior to the Khanabad incident. The same source also indicated that Uzbek officials closed the border early on May 25. If such timing is accurate, it means that the border was sealed prior to the outbreak of violence. It is impossible to know, however, whether the recent arrests or the border closing had any role in precipitating the Khanabad violence.
Some experts see a potential link between the Khanabad firefight and the anti-Taliban offensive being carried out in Pakistan. After getting their start in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan in the early 2000s, many Central Asian militants drifted to safe havens in Pakistan's tribal areas.
Now those Pakistani safe havens are becoming less secure. Pakistani troops have pressed an offensive in the Swat Valley that has pushed the Taliban back on their heels, and there is a widespread expectation that the government will soon expand its security sweep in the renegade-rich region of Waziristan. Under increasing pressure in Pakistan, Central Asian militants may be opting to return home, reviving the idea of fomenting an insurgency in Central Asia. Some early reports suggested that the clash began following some sort of incident at a police checkpoint on a road near the border town. Other reports suggested local factors, such as smuggling, could have been involved.
Russian media outlets have indicated the Khanabad attack was the handiwork of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. Regardless of whether or not that was the case, some regional experts believe that Islamic militants may lack the infrastructure in Central Asia to create a sustainable insurgency.
"The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan does not have the social and financial base for it," Kyrgyz political scientist Nur Omarov said in an interview with EurasiaNet.
"Although people in Uzbekistan are against the illegitimate rule of [President Islam] Karimov they are still not ready and do not want to become part of radical Islamic world. As a result, the Islamic Movement doesn't have many chances," Omarov continued. "This is an episodic display of power, to show that [resistance] still exists and to show foreign friends and sponsors that they [deserve] to support."
This story contains reporting by EurasiaNet correspondent Deirdre Tynan.