Kyrgyz and Tajik soldiers have again exchanged fire on their disputed border, injuring and possibly killing civilians. This is their third shootout this year. But ominously, this time the fighting has spread to a new location, suggesting that the authorities’ halting efforts to end the long-festering dispute risk being overtaken by events on the ground.
As usual, both sides offer conflicting accounts of the August 25 violence. According to Kyrgyz officials, Tajik border guards attempted to establish a border post in a disputed area. Tajik civilians then tried to destroy a bridge used by Kyrgyz citizens. The Tajiks opened fire first and used mortars, say the Kyrgyz officials.
According to Tajik media citing an unnamed local official, five Tajik civilians received gunshot wounds in the skirmish, which began when the Kyrgyz started repair work on a bridge in disputed territory. Avesta reports two dead, a soldier and a civilian, in addition to the five injured. Kyrgyz troops fired first, according to this version, and the Tajiks did not return fire.
The shootout occurred in the extreme western district of Kyrgyzstan’s Batken Province, in Leilek District, an area corresponding to the Bobojon Gafur District of Tajikistan’s Sughd Province. That is several hours’ drive from the site of recent violence.
A simmering water dispute between Astana and Bishkek is heating up, with Kyrgyzstan threatening to cut electricity to its neighbor and reportedly accusing Kazakh officials of attempted extortion – then denying it.
The dispute escalated on July 29 when Kyrgyzstan’s energy minister alleged, according to both Kyrgyz and Kazakh media reports, that unnamed Kazakh officials had attempted to bribe him during water and energy negotiations.
“They openly offered a bribe for the sale of energy at a low price to Kazakhstani consumers,” Osmonbek Artykbayev said in remarks quoted by CA-News.org. Kyrgyz negotiators “managed to hold out,” he was reported to have said.
On July 30, Artykbayev denied ever making such an accusation, using the time-honored explanation that reporters had distorted his words. He said he had been explaining how his ministry had stepped up the fight against corruption in the energy sector. “Unfortunately my words about the fight against corruption were incorrectly interpreted in individual media outlets,” Artykbayev said in remarks quoted by Tengri News.
Last month Artykbayev threatened to halt electric power exports to Kazakhstan, citing a water shortage. “It’s a difficult question, but there is not enough water in the Toktogul Reservoir, and we are faced with the question of supplying our own population,” Tengri News quoted him as saying on June 27. Kyrgyzstan generates over 90 percent of its electricity from hydropower.
At least one Uzbek border guard was killed in a clash with his Kyrgyz counterparts on July 23. But that’s about all the local media on both sides of the frontier agree on. Officials from the hostile neighbors are presenting differing accounts of the skirmish, including where it occurred.
Tashkent’s 12news.uz website describes a “provocation” on a farm in Namangan Region at around 9:30 a.m. Uzbek time (10:30 a.m. in Kyrgyzstan), when two Uzbek patrolmen tried to stop several “drunk” Kyrgyz guards armed with machine guns who had "intruded" onto Uzbekistan's territory. When the Uzbek guards tried to approach their Kyrgyz colleagues to "explain the seriousness of the situation," the latter opened fire without warning, killing one on the spot and seriously wounding the other in the chest. "Having finished their dirty job, the Kyrgyz bandits left our country," 12news.uz said.
The Uzbek Border Service found spent shells about 100 meters into Uzbek territory, the website said, adding that the second guard died in hospital.
Five shepherds and at least a thousand head of sheep seem to have become the latest victims in the ongoing border dispute between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.
Uzbek border guards seized the wandering ruminants earlier this month, Fergananews reported on June 24, citing the Tajik service of Radio Liberty, which in turn cited Tajik border guards in the northern province of Sughd. A father of one of the disappeared shepherds said the number of abducted animals was 2,200 sheep plus 41 cows.
No comment was immediately available from the Uzbek side, which has reportedly not responded to Tajik requests for negotiations.
The two countries have long been at odds over their 1,200-kilometer border, much of which remains undefined.
The troublesome boundary is not the main source of friction, however. Dushanbe and Tashkent barely speak with one another. The Uzbeks are furious over Tajik plans to build the world’s tallest hydropower dam, Rogun, upstream, claiming it will give Tajikistan unfair control over regional water resources and could harm the environment. Tajikistan, for its part, cites Uzbekistan’s constant gas cuts as a reason it needs the giant project. The antagonism is often described as deeply personal between the two countries’ autocratic rulers.
Uzbekistan has mined much of the border since it became an international frontier in 1991 at the collapse of the Soviet Union, splitting families who once lived in the same country. Shootings are common, often of stray shepherds chasing their livestock and of smugglers who have failed to pay off the right border guards at night.
Conflicting reports about a bloody skirmish, or two, on the Uzbekistan-Afghanistan border in recent days have generated some basic questions -- like, who got killed? Some Russian-language media say the Uzbeks killed three Afghan police officers on March 16; Tashkent says it killed three Afghan attackers on March 14.
According to Tashkent’s account, about 10 Afghans attacked Uzbek border guards on March 14 and tried to seize their weapons. Uzbek guards were forced to shoot, wounding four Afghans, three of whom died.
But on March 17, Afghanistan’s border police commander, General Mohammad Jan Mamozai, said that Uzbek border guards had shot seven Afghan “police” on an Afghan island in the Amu Darya river, according to an Afghanistan.ru report, killing three.
The "police" narrative seems to have taken hold in the Russian-language media. But Pajhwok Afghan News, also citing Mamozai, says the seven Afghans were civilians.
Haji Sharfuddin, an elder from Kaldar District in Afghanistan’s Balkh Province, denounced the killings. He said the civilians had not crossed the border into Uzbekistan, according to Pajhwok.
The two countries share a 137-kilometer border defined by the Amu Darya.
Neither the Uzbek border service, nor the National Security Service (SNB, formerly the KGB), which operates it, have responded to the Afghan allegations.
A Ferghana Valley border clash this weekend yet again highlights the potential for violence in Central Asia’s most densely populated and ethnically diverse region.
Several hundred residents of the Uzbek enclave of Sokh reportedly attacked a Kyrgyz border post and took Kyrgyz citizens hostage on January 5 and 6, according to local news wires. Sokh (also spelled Soh) is an island of territory controlled by Uzbekistan and entirely surrounded by one of Kyrgyzstan’s poorest provinces, Batken.
Though Sokh is populated mostly by ethnic Tajiks, a minority in both countries, the episode is an unsettling reminder of the fighting between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in southern Kyrgyzstan that left hundreds dead in 2010.
Life for Tajikistan’s conscripts manning the drug-infested Afghanistan border is dismal. Frequent reports tell us they are cold, hungry and untrained (“recruits fire only nine shots over a 40-day” Russian-led training). But life for their dogs may be even worse, we now have learned thanks to Wikileaked American embassy cables.