A second hostage crisis in a week has amplified concerns about ethnic tensions in southern Kyrgyzstan.
Police in Osh Province say a fight between locals and Chinese workers in the village of Kurshab on January 8 left dozens injured. The brawl reportedly started when Chinese workers, possibly intoxicated, accused a local resident of stealing a mobile phone. A fight ensued and the Chinese reportedly took a group of Kyrgyzstanis hostage. Some reports say local police were among the 28 injured in the fracas. All Chinese from the district have been evacuated to Osh city for their safety, KyrTAG reports.
The Chinese were working on a high-profile power line that will connect parts of southern Kyrgyzstan with the north. Due to the fight, the launch of the line has been delayed, said Musazhan Makelek, head of China’s TBEA energy firm in Kyrgyzstan. Makelek told 24.kg that the fight had nothing to do with the $208 million project, which is being financed by China, and blamed both sides.
Thousands of Chinese nationals work in Kyrgyzstan, most on infrastructure projects such as high-voltage electricity lines and roads, and as traders. Beijing has promised hundreds of millions in loans and assistance in recent years. But the Chinese presence and largesse is not without controversy. Many Kyrgyz are deeply suspicious and worry the giant neighbor could swallow their tiny country.
The fight in Kurshab follows only days after another ethnically tinged clash elsewhere in the volatile Ferghana Valley, a region of porous and undecided boundaries that are a legacy of the Soviet era.
Over the weekend, in the Uzbekistani enclave of Sokh, Uzbek citizens attacked Kyrgyz border guards who were reportedly building power lines on contested land. Sokh is an island of Uzbekistani territory, populated mostly by minority Tajiks, surrounded entirely by Kyrgyzstan’s impoverished Batken Province.
When Uzbek citizens attacked the Kyrgyz border guards, the border guards reportedly fired into the air, wounding several. The Uzbekistanis then seized approximately 30 Kyrgyzstani hostages, who were released the next day. Though authorities in Bishkek and Tashkent have promised to coordinate their investigations, they seem to be having trouble agreeing on the basics of what happened. A Kyrgyz official told RFE/RL on January 8 that Sokh would remain sealed, and thus cut off from Uzbekistan, until Tashkent agreed to pay compensation for damages.
Tensions between the two countries frequently flare over delayed energy payments and cutoffs, arbitrarily closed borders, and Kyrgyzstan’s plans to build a hydropower plant upstream.
The fighting in two parts of southern Kyrgyzstan this week is a vivid reminder of how deadly serious such confrontations can become. Outbreaks of ethnic violence between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks left hundreds dead in 1990 and again in 2010
Up to 345 kilometers of the 1,395-kilometer boundary between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan remain disputed. Until Bishkek and Tashkent fully delimit the frontier, regular clashes are likely to continue. Many fear it is only a matter of time before a small fight on the border grows out of control.