Days after an agreement that had the potential to ease tensions on the disputed border between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, a shootout between the countries’ border guards left several injured on each side January 11, local media report. In what could herald a sharp escalation in the simmering conflict, a Kyrgyz official has alleged that Tajik troops used heavy weapons.
As usual, there are conflicting stories over how the violence started.
Several Kyrgyz news outlets reported that Tajik border guards shot first after an altercation over road construction on contested territory. The 24.kg news agency said at least five Kyrgyz guards were wounded and that angry local civilians were protesting in the village of Kok-Tash.
Citing a local Tajik resident, Tajikistan’s Asia-Plus news agency also reported that Tajik guards clashed with their counterparts over the construction of a road through disputed territory. But in this account, Kyrgyz border guards fired first, wounding two Tajik guards.
In a development bound to raise tensions between the two poorest Soviet successor states, late on January 11 Kyrgyzstan's Deputy Prime Minister Tokon Mamytov, whose portfolio includes defense, said fragments of mortar shells were found at the scene. He cited Kyrgyzstan’s Border Service as saying that the Tajiks had fired six mortars and four rocket-propelled grenades. Tajik officials have not yet responded to claims they used artillery.
Whatever weapons were used, the shootout occurred near the Kyrgyz village of Ak-Sai, which sits on a disputed plot of land on a road -- via Kyrgyzstan’s Batken Province --connecting Tajikistan and the Tajik exclave of Vorukh. This densely populated area of the Fergana Valley is the scene of regular unrest, frequently with ethnic undertones, arising from disputes over water or grazing land. In disputed areas, Tajiks are usually citizens of Tajikistan and Kyrgyz are citizens of Kyrgyzstan.
Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the two countries have done little to demarcate or delimit their mutual border, which, when both were part of the same country, mattered little. Of 971 kilometers dividing the two countries, just over half – 519 kilometers – has officially been agreed upon, according to the Kyrgyz government. This creates opportunities for both negligence and abuse. Both countries’ border troops regularly patrol contested areas and residents allege the soldiers sometimes harass them, limiting their movements, looking through their belongings or trying to extract bribes.
On January 8, during meetings in Dushanbe, the two sides agreed to patrol the border jointly in a rare preemptive effort to tackle mounting tensions. Two days later, Mamytov, who headed Kyrgyzstan’s delegation, said that despite regular meetings, the two sides had not agreed on a single kilometer of the frontier for seven years, Kyrgyz news agencies reported.
For a roundup of unrest along the border last year, check out this post from late December.