Officials in Kyrgyzstan say they have killed 11 unidentified attackers in a remote mountain valley near China, sparking a storm of speculation but providing very little concrete information about what happened or how.
The State Border Service said in a statement that the members of a “criminal gang” had been killed while putting up resistance on January 23 at an isolated frontier post, some 40 kilometers from the Chinese border, after they had killed a hunter and used his gun against border troops.
It’s unclear what the alleged attackers, nationality unknown, were doing running around in the dead of winter in a remote region where mountain valleys average above 3,500 meters (11,500 feet), but Kyrgyz media, officials and talking heads were happy to spend the day speculating, pontificating, and criticizing the bizarre situation.
Governor Emil Kaptagaev of Issyk-Kul Province, where the incident took place, started the guesswork off provocatively when he suggested the group could be Uighur militants from China. (No stranger to drama, Kaptagaev made headlines last autumn when he was kidnapped and doused with petrol by match-wielding constituents demanding the nationalization of a Canadian-run gold mine not far from Thursday’s shootout.)
News agency AKIpress – which initially seemed to support the governor’s train of thought with a thinly sourced report that the alleged attackers had yelled “Allahu Akbar!” – responded skeptically to Kaptagaev’s theory, noting that “the speed with which the plenipotentiary [governor] determined [the presence of] an Islamic or Uighur trail from China is disturbing.”
But the militant idea will appeal to Chinese officials across the border in Xinjiang, who last week announced they were doubling efforts to fight “terrorism” that they link to Uighur separatist groups. Indeed, Kyrgyzstan’s Kloop.kg news agency cites unnamed Chinese officials as saying they have not ruled out that today’s attackers were Uighur extremists and that they would be happy to cooperate with Kyrgyzstan in the fight against militants. (There has been speculation in the past that China, which wields considerable economic clout in Kyrgyzstan, has used its influence to suppress Uighur activism in the Central Asian nation.)
Local pundits – like oft-quoted but not particularly reliable political analyst Toktogul Kakchekeev – have breathed new life into rumors that ousted President Kurmanbek Bakiyev’s former security chief, his brother Janysh, is in western China plotting some sort of unrest for Kyrgyzstan. Janysh and the Bakiyevs are often rolled out as convenient bogymen whenever something unexplainable happens, or someone is trying to discredit the authorities.
In parliament, one opposition lawmaker used the fighting to criticize the government’s overall border management. Maksat Sabirov of the Respublika Party said the “extremist group” had entered Kyrgyzstan from China, according to the KyrTAG news agency, because border officials had shifted security forces to the Fergana Valley after a January 11 clash between Kyrgyz and Tajik border guards.
In the heat of the moment, a few have stopped to consider more banal explanations for the violence. The head of a hunting union said the group may have been illegal poachers hunting for trophies like Marco Polo sheep. Others point out that Kyrgyzstan lies on an awfully busy route for trafficking narcotics out of Afghanistan.
But AKIpress may have the best question for authorities after today’s events: Couldn’t you take at least one of these guys alive?
"If the country's leadership and the State Border Service really want to get to the bottom of things, then the militants or a militant must be taken alive. In the current situation, when they are surrounded and there's no chance for a break-though (all around there are mountains impassable because of snow), taking any one of them alive is just a matter of time. At least we would find out what strategic tasks the militants are tackling in this corner of the world in impassable weather conditions,” AKIpress reasoned.
The unstated but implied follow-up question – in keeping with the day’s speculative mood – is why didn’t the Kyrgyz capture any of these alleged attackers: lack of resources? ineptitude? cover-up? Chances are the answer will stay hidden in the mountain snows.
**This story initially identified the attackers as gunmen. As of January 24, there has not been confirmation that they had brought guns of their own.