A sudden deployment of troops by Uzbekistan along a disputed section of border has rattled nerves in Kyrgyzstan.
Kyrgyzstan’s border service reported on March 18 that Uzbek troops have blocked an unmarked section of the frontier linking the localities of Kerben and Ala-Buka, two areas of Kyrgyzstan lying either side of a spur of Uzbekistan.
Officials said Uzbekistan’s military deployed armored personnel carriers, two Kamaz trucks and up to 40 troops to the disputed area, which is around 50 kilometers (31 miles) north of the Ferghana city of Namangan.
The Foreign Ministry in Bishkek summoned Uzbek ambassador Komil Rashidov and handed him a note of protest. The letter demanded that Uzbek forces dismantle checkpoints set up in the border area.
Sections of the border between Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, as well as Tajikistan, zigzag haphazardly for several hundred kilometers, requiring local people to either undertake long detours or traverse the neighboring nation’s territory, which can entail long waits.
Uzbek forces have closed the Madaniyat-Avtodorozhnyi crossing and are barring Kyrgyz citizens from entering Uzbekistan through the Dostuk-Avtodorozhnyi crossing. People are being allowed to leave Uzbekistan through the latter crossing, but cannot re-enter.
In response to the Uzbek deployments, Kyrgyzstan’s armed forces on March 19 dispatched two troop carriers of their own to the same area, explaining that they needed to bolster border security. Bishkek said it would draw back the troops as soon as Uzbekistan recalls its own forces.
Uzbekistan has refrained from issuing any official statements, but some local media have cited border service sources in Tashkent as saying that the mobilization was a routine reinforcement for Nowruz festivities. The holiday, which marks the Persian New Year, is celebrated across Central Asia on March 21.
“All of the military equipment in question is being deployed within the country [Uzbekistan]. Protection of the border crossing is being conducted in accordance with bilateral agreements and does not affect non-demarcated sections,” one official told Podrobno.uz.
That assessment has been starkly refuted by Kyrgyzstan, which says that the Uzbeks are square inside disputed territories. Raimberdy Diushenbiev, head of the Kyrgyz border service, told RFE/RL Kyrgyz service, Radio Azattyk, that Uzbekistan was in clear violation of bilateral agreements.
“There is an agreement between the two states that neither side may enter disputed territory with troops and military equipment. They have violated this agreement”, he said.
Diushenbiev told Azattyk that although there are occasional incidents of people crossing the border illegally or accidentally walking herds of cattle into neighboring territory, this is the first time that Uzbekistan has taking up armed positions on disputed land.
Minor skirmishes between residents on either side of the disputed borders of Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan occur several times a year and are typically sparked by disputes over access to land and water.
One relatively serious incident involving armed forces took place in July 2014, when the border guards of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan took potshots at one another with firearms and light artillery near the Tamdyk border crossing. Kyrgyz officials claimed at the time that the unrest was provoked by Tajik citizens attempting to divert water from the Karavshin river to a canal feeding a village in Tajikistan’s Vorukh enclave.