Four days after the mysterious, violent deaths of 11 men near Kyrgyzstan’s border with China, key questions remain unanswered – like why none of the men, whom Kyrgyz officials suspect of decapitating a local hunter and plotting terrorism, could be taken alive. In a country where conspiracy theories flourish and distrust of authorities abounds, many Kyrgyz, including some lawmakers, seem to doubt official explanations.
"There's a lot that's not clear. There are no witnesses. We don't know whom to believe. Some people say one thing, others say something completely different,” Kyrgyz lawmaker Nurlan Torbekov, an Afghan war vet, was quoted as saying by Kloop.kg on January 27.
Kyrgyzstan’s State Border Service says the men, tentatively identified as ethnic Uighurs, crossed over from China’s Xinjiang Province and were carrying belongings that indicate they harbored “extremist” views – prayer rugs, a Koran, knives, masks, a compass, and more.
The group, described initially as “armed,” had one gun. They had stolen it from the Kyrgyz hunter, Alexander Barykin, whom they allegedly killed early on January 23 about 40 kilometers inside Kyrgyz territory after he killed two of them. Later that day, the remaining nine suspects in Barykin’s murder were “liquidated” by border troops, the only witnesses.
Today, at a meeting of parliament’s defense committee, Kyrgyzstan’s deputy prime minister for security issues, Tokon Mamytov, defended the decision to kill all the suspects.
Responding to questions from parliament member Ismail Isakov, a former defense minister who wondered why the troops couldn’t capture “at least one” of the suspects, Mamytov said the soldiers had surrounded the building where the group was holed up and that it was getting dark. Had they not been eliminated, he said, the suspects could have escaped into the mountains.
Earlier, State Border Service acting head Raimberdi Duishenbiyev said that his troops feared the suspects could escape, but suggested revenge may have also been a motivating factor.
“Why weren’t they left alive? Because how can they be left alive after they brutally killed our citizen, cut off his head,” Duishenbiyev said in comments carried on state television January 24.
Still, according to video released by the Border Service, by the time the suspects were surrounded, they had no ammunition left.
“It’s no exaggeration to say a real massacre occurred. […] And the more actively the security forces are trying to shed some light on it [the story], the more convoluted it becomes. Who’s covering their tracks?” 24.kg asked in a January 25 editorial.
The news agency quoted Duishenbiyev as saying that "the Uighur separatists came to seize weapons from shepherds and hunters, to commit a couple of terrorist attacks and again return to their homeland, China. The versions that they were poachers, smugglers or simply refugees are ruled out.”
Yet for terrorists, they were not well equipped. In addition to the knives, and two axes, they were allegedly carrying less than $700 and a video camera missing its memory chip.
"If they were indeed Uighur separatists or terrorists or the like, then they chose quite an unusual method of gaining entry into the country. There are less extreme methods for entering Kyrgyzstan. For example, legally crossing the border with ‘clean’ documents, and then gathering at an agreed-upon place at a specified day and time to commit one or a series of terrorist attacks,” 24.kg cited a local analyst as saying. He added that the huge number of Chinese Uighur traders at Kyrgyzstan’s bazaars could have provided an excellent cover for would-be terrorists.
The bizarre border incident has played into long-simmering tensions between China and its minority Uighur community.
Kyrgyz authorities’ public statements linking the dead men to potential terror plots fit with Beijing’s position that some Uighurs have ties to international Islamic terrorist groups. (As Kyrgyz authorities sent photos of the dead to Beijing for identification, local media cited Chinese Embassy officials as saying the bodies look to be those of ethnic Uighurs.)
Meanwhile, Uighur rights activist say Kyrgyz border troops may have massacred a group of refugees fleeing Chinese repression.
“Kyrgyzstan remains an important conduit through which Uighur refugees can escape the repression to which they are subjected in East Turkestan [Xinjiang],” Rebiya Kadeer, head of the Munich-based World Uighur Congress, said in a January 24 statement, which also called for a “full, transparent, and independent” investigation.
Kadeer likewise accused Chinese authorities of “exporting their repression abroad” and trying “to curb Uighur activism and Uighurs seeking refuge” with the help of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a Beijing-led group of which Kyrgyzstan is a member.
Deep-pocketed China carries enormous clout in cash-strapped Kyrgyzstan. And Beijing’s strained relations with Xinjiang have reverberated in the past in the Central Asian nation, itself home to a small Uighur community. With this kind of politics involved, the true story of what happened high in the Tien Shan Mountains on January 23, and who the dead men were, will likely remain shrouded in mystery.