Mon, 14 Aug 2000

Central Asian unrest shows region's vulnerability

By Mike Collett-White

ALMATY (Reuters): Growing violence this week along the southern belt of oil-rich Central Asia has served as a stark reminder to leaders, diplomats and businesses that turbulence in the region is unlikely to disappear any time soon.

A group of 30 to 40 armed rebels from Tajikistan clashed with government troops in the south of Kyrgyzstan earlier on Friday, just hours after Russian border guards repelled an attempt by up to 40 fighters to cross north from Afghanistan into Tajikistan.

Uzbekistan, meanwhile, is fighting up to 100 rebels in the south, near its own frontier with war-torn Afghanistan. It says the group crossed from Tajikistan, a charge the Tajiks deny.

It is the worst violence in the region since last August, when several hundred well-armed men poured into Kyrgyzstan from Tajikistan and held four Japanese geologists, and effectively the country itself, hostage for a tense two months.

In February, 1999, Uzbek President Islam Karimov narrowly escaped death when a series of bombs went off in the capital Tashkent which he blamed on outlawed hardline Islamic opponents believed to be behind at least some of the latest clashes.

"This kind of instability could go on and on -- I can't see it going away quickly," said David Lewis of Control Risks Group.

"The more regional leaders suppress religion and opposition and the poorer people become, the worse the situation could get," he said in Kazakhstan's commercial hub of Almaty.

Western analysts and diplomats say that at the root of the problem lies Afghanistan, where the ruling Taleban militia is seen as at least happy to host rebel groups concentrating on Central Asia, if not to offer them more direct support.

"These people would have nowhere to go if it wasn't for Afghanistan," said one Western political analyst.

The Taleban for its part denies harboring or exporting groups active in violence abroad.

The key group in last week's attacks appears to be the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, also blamed for the August 1999 invasion in Kyrgyzstan and the February blasts in Tashkent, and which is believed to be based partly in Afghanistan.

Led by the notorious commander Dzhuma Namangani, the group aims to oust Karimov, who has watched nervously as a broad Islamic revival takes root in the Fergana Valley region also enveloping parts of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

Last week's offensive may also be aimed at justifying funds which the movement may be getting from hardline Islamic networks overseas, analysts said.

Last year's attack on Kyrgyzstan began in Tajikistan and was ultimately aimed at breaking through to the Uzbek part of the valley. It showed clearly how a relatively small band of fighters can undermine relations within the region.

While the battles during the last few years have been concentrated mostly in the remote southern belt of the vast Central Asian area of 55 million people, the concern among big business is that one day it could hit them.

Kazakhstan boasts some of the world's largest oil reserves and is a major metals producer, Turkmenistan is floating on huge gas fields and Uzbekistan is a big exporter of gold and cotton.

For the firms who have already poured billions of dollars into the resource sectors and for those considering doing so, reports of clashes are worrying.

"The interesting step would be if these people who are currently mainly focused on the Uzbek regime decide to move to a more trans-national campaign and target Western diplomats or Western companies," Lewis said.

The Tashkent bombings, which killed at least 16, were a reminder that even the region's largest city is not safe.

While widespread violence is widely believed to be a long way off, the five former Soviet Central Asian states are feeling their vulnerability more than ever since the break-up of the Soviet empire.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has sought to exploit those concerns to reassert Moscow's control over its former territory with promises of military cooperation and political backing.

He also has an eye on the Caspian's fabulous wealth in hydrocarbons, political and economic analysts say.

Regional leaders have dealt with the crisis by seeking to crack down on opposition and religious groups, a policy which some say could backfire.

That risk grows as long as resource wealth fails to translate into higher living standards for the masses, a large proportion of whom survive on miserly wages, analysts said.