Remote control airborne drones are becoming increasingly popular playthings for hobbyists around the world, but not in Uzbekistan.
Officials in Guliston, a town some 100 kilometers south of the capital, found and confiscated four small pilotless drones during what appears to have been a major multi-departmental operation.
The government’s Electromagnetic Compatibility Enforcement Service produced pictures with its November 23 statement that showed several Phantom unmanned aerial vehicles, which are made by Chinese company DJI. The brand is widely available and can be bought over the Internet for less than $500.
The Guliston haul wasn’t exactly massive, despite the many different government bodies involved. The raid included officials from the state communications inspectorate, the customs committee, the tax inspectorate, and the anti-money laundering department.
The ban on drones was introduced on January 1 in what the government says was an effort to ensure aircraft security and avoid the unsanctioned use of Uzbekistan’s airspace.
Such regulations are inexistent in most parts of the world, and in the region for that matter. Drone footage is becoming popular in production of wedding videos in places like Kyrgyzstan.
Still, use of the devices is not uncontentious.
Flying drones over national parks is illegal in the United States, for example.
Across the world, drones are also typically banned around military bases and airport.
Russia too has been looking to tighten use of the vehicles.
A spokesman for a key security body in Tajikistan has wandered off the script on Afghanistan by scoffing at claims there is a build-up of Islamic State militants beyond the country's southern border.
Muhammad Ulugkhodzhayev, spokesman for the security services Main Border Troops Directorate, told Avesta website on November 5 that the rumors of fighters with the terrorist organization converging in northern Afghanistan were “far from truthful.”
Seeking to downplay another oft-aired scare scenario, Ulugkhodzhayev said there has not to date been a single attempt by militants from either Islamic State or the Taliban to make an incursion into Tajikistan.
The more thoughtful observers of the region have indeed long questioned whether the Taliban in particular would have any tactical, strategic or ideological interest in venturing into the former Soviet states along Afghanistan’s border.
Ulugkhodzhayev said that defenses on the country’s border were as normal.
Officials in Tajikistan, from the president downward, have tended to speak out of both sides of their mouths on the thorny issue of security. On one hand, they seek to cast themselves as the frontline against Islamic radicalism, thereby buying themselves diplomatic leverage with international partners, but at the same time they insist Tajikistan’s security forces are more than capable of dealing with any challenges that present themselves.
A bomb exploded in Tashkent, close to the city’s main bazaar, in one of the most crowded areas of Uzbekistan’s capital, RFE/RL has reported.
No-one was injured in the blast on September 4, which was confirmed to RFE/RL by Tashkent police.
It was caused by an explosive device left at a bus stop, said the police, who said they were searching for a suspect witnessed dumping it there before making a getaway.
Only much later in the day, Uzbekistan's Interior Ministry issued a statement saying that the explosion was a security exercise designed to test the capacity of the security forces to react to a terrorist attack.
The explosion took place near Tashkent’s Chorsu Bazaar in the heart of the Old Town, which was the scene of a terrorist attack in 2004. That episode introduced suicide bombing to Central Asia and prefaced a spate of explosions in Tashkent and Bukhara that left at least 19 people dead.
The device blew up near the Tokhtaboy Mosque, one of Uzbekistan’s largest and best-known places of worship, where Obidkhon Qori Nazarov — a religious leader whose preaching displeased the authoritarian regime of President Islam Karimov — was once the imam.
He fled Uzbekistan in 1998, and in 2012 was the subject of an assassination attempt in Sweden, where investigators have pointed the finger at the Uzbekistani authorities for the crime.
Shootouts in Tajikistan have once more exposed the fragile stability that only stands to be threatened by government efforts to marginalize all opposition to its rule.
Raids on police stations and military bases early on September 4 appeared well-coordinated and involved individuals that only recently occupied important government posts. According to the Interior Ministry, 17 were killed, including eight law enforcement officials and nine militant gunmen.
The sequence of events is unclear, but one of the first flashpoints seems to have been at a military base near the airport in Dushanbe, where a group of people intruded and carried away large amounts of small arms and ammunition.
A report carried on the Avesta.tj news website cited accounts provided by unnamed officials as saying that this armed group then headed to the town of Vakhdat, where they attacked the local police station.
The Interior Ministry said four police officers were killed in Vakhdat.
One of the alleged attackers killed was Ziyodiddin Abdulloyev, who was a field commander with the United Tajik Opposition during the civil war and was later appointed to a post in the Interior Ministry as part of the post-conflict settlement.
In a separate attack that occurred around the same time near the airport in Dushanbe, two special forces troops and one traffic policeman were reportedly killed in a shootout. Another opposition fighter, Junaidullo Umarov, who held a position in the Defense Ministry, has been linked to that incident.
Tajikistan’s war on the wrong clothes looks set to step up a gear as the authorities resolve to crack down on anything they perceive as dangerous, radical Islam.
Asia-Plus website reported that a meeting in Dushanbe on August 19 brought together the mayor, members of parliament, city deputies, police, traders and religious leaders for discussions touching on areas of concern, including the flourishing of radical Islam.
Dushanbe mayor Mahmadsaid Ubaidulloev appealed to meeting participants to help combat “displays of religious extremism and terrorism” and for all city residents to assist in the battle.
To that end, Ubaidulloev issued instructions for government officials to put an end to the import and sale of clothes alien to Tajiks. That is typically code for conservative Islamic clothing worn by women, anything from hijabs to the niqab, which covers almost the entire face.
What those clothes might be was also spelled out by President Emomali Rahmon during a Mother’s Day speech in February.
“Since ancient times our people have had beautiful women’s dresses, our girls have never worn black clothes. Traditionally, black clothes are not welcome,” Rahmon told mothers ahead of Mother’s Day, which has replaced International Women’s Day in Tajikistan and is marked on March 8.
State television tried to spice up that message some days after the speech by airing a report telling of prostitutes who use the veil to enhance their appeal.
Welcome to Kazakhstan! But not all of it, unless you want to pay a fine.
That’s the mixed message emerging as enthusiasm about moves to open up visa-free travel to a growing list of nationalities is dampened by the introduction of special access permits for some of the country’s prime tourist spots.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs unveiled legislation on June 26 making it easier for citizens of 19 countries to visit the country for stays of up to 15 days by waiving visa requirements. The full list can be found here. The law will remain in force through to the end of 2017.
But while it will become easier for many to get into Kazakhstan, it will now be illegal to visit some of the country’s top tourist draws without written permission obtained seven days in advance.
Under legislation that came into force on June 15, special documentation is needed to visit sights located within a 25-kilometer radius of the border. That would include Medeu ice skating rink and the Shymbluak ski resort, both located only a short drive from the country’s largest city, Almaty. Other places effectively off-limits to visitors include Lake Alakol and the Kolsai lakes.
Anybody visiting these places without the proper paperwork now risks incurring a fine.
According to tour guide Karlygash Makatova, a foreign diplomat was recently fined for visiting Big Almaty Lake without permission, Tengrinews website reported. Makatova mentioned another occasion when tourists were detained and fined while visiting Sharyn Canyon, one of Almaty region's landmark attractions.
In an episode that is going to sow fears of an imminent surge of terrorist activity in Central Asia, authorities in Kyrgyzstan said July 16 that they killed four gunmen who they said were planning attacks in the capital, Bishkek.
A spokesman for the security services at the scene of the shootout said special forces were forced to open fire after the armed group resisted arrest.
“During the special operation, four security service special unit officers were wounded and later hospitalized,” the State Committee for National Security said in a statement.
Officials were unable to provide more than a few cursory details in the wake of the shootout, but the security services spokesman described the men as belonging to an international group. Local media reported that the group was comprised of citizens of Kazakhstan and that they were militants with the Islamic State group, but officials declined to confirm either of those claims.
Plumes of black smoke could be seen rising in the early evening above the central neighborhood where the shootout took place. Police cordoned off the street where the fighting occured, but crowds of local residents stood and watched from the distance for hours after the worst of the unrest had subsided.
Sustained gunfire and blasts can be heard in footage of the clash uploaded to the Internet. Onlookers at the scene shared video footage of one person with his hands behind his back being marched away from the area. It was not immediately clear if the man was involved in the unrest.
Tajikistan has coupled one of its habitual Internet blocking sprees with an alarming show of police strength in central Dushanbe. The two cautious moves together appear designed to persuade a cowed population that heeding online calls for revolution is a bad idea.
Losing access to several websites simultaneously – typically social media and news sites – has become a regular fact of life for Internet users in Tajikistan. The latest filtering, which the government has denied imposing and Internet Service Providers have refused to admit on record, is unusual only in that Amazon.com, rarely cited as an agent of revolution, has been included on the blacklist. Northern Sughd Oblast, home to Tajikistan’s second-largest city, Khujand, has been almost completely offline since October 4.
Truth is no longer something expected from the government’s hated telecoms regulator, which consistently denies it blocks websites. Internet Service Providers (ISPs) have a strong incentive to follow suit by attributing the bans to “technical problems,” or face the possibility of losing their licenses. But one provider speaking anonymously to Russian news agency Interfax was reported as saying October 6: "We have received an order from the communications service [to block] a list of websites: Facebook, vk.com, lenta.ru, youtube.com, mk.ru, amazon.com, ru.wikipedia.org and dozens of web anonymizers that allow bypassing these blockings."
Security and energy topped the agenda on the first day of European Union foreign affairs envoy Catherine Ashton’s visit to Central Asia, disappointing campaigners hoping she would make vocal calls for improvements to what they see as the five states’ dismal human rights records.
Following the EU-Central Asia Ministerial meeting in Kyrgyzstan on November 27, Ashton cited first security (due to the region’s proximity to Afghanistan) then energy and trade as key to “the growing importance of Central Asia.”
“We face shared security challenges. We have great potential to further develop our energy, trade and economic relations,” she said, only then pointing to the EU’s desire to “support the efforts of the countries of Central Asia as you take that journey of political and economic reforms.”
She listed topics of discussion as education; the rule of law; the environment; and energy and water resources (a particular bone of regional contention). “And we talked about democratization and human rights and the development of civil society,” Ashton then added.
Human rights campaigners had been hoping for stronger language from the EU foreign policy chief, who promised ahead of her visit in an interview with Radio Free Europe to make human rights “a core part of the dialogue.”
Osh, Kyrgyzstan’s “southern capital,” has been angling for the trappings of a true, national capital. Last month, the city’s mayor unveiled his own anthem and flag. Now he wants his own police force.
Melisbek Myrzakmatov said on November 10 that his municipal police plans are in the drafting stages, but could come to fruition in the near future. According to AKIpress, the new force, including a special forces unit, would be independent of Bishkek’s Interior Ministry. The mayor complained that police currently carry out political orders, not legal ones, on behalf of Bishkek. The Interior Ministry called the move illegal.
Myrzakmatov’s latest show of nonalignment with Bishkek will pose a big test for President-Elect Almazbek Atambayev. Among Western investigators, the meaty-armed mayor, perhaps more than any other official, has been linked to the ethnic violence last year between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks, which killed over 400, and is often described as part of the reason his city remains divided. The central government, almost 700 kilometers away, beyond a twisting mountain road, has been powerless to remove him. Appointed by ousted ex-President Kurmanbek Bakiyev in January 2009, Myrzakmatov won’t budge. When Bishkek tried to fire him in August 2010, shortly after the ethnic bloodletting, he brought his supporters into the streets and declared the central government has “no legal force in the south.”