Islamic warriors strike at Russia's flanks

Soaring peaks and deserted valleys of three central Asian states provide perfect terrain for well-armed guerrillas
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The Independent Online

"We lost five men dead from my unit when Islamic guerrillas ambushed us a few weeks ago," said an officer in the Uzbeki army who had just returned from fighting in the high mountains on the border of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.

"We lost five men dead from my unit when Islamic guerrillas ambushed us a few weeks ago," said an officer in the Uzbeki army who had just returned from fighting in the high mountains on the border of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.

He said the Islamic fighters had fought bravely when cornered, some shouting " Allah Akbar [God is Great]" before blowing themselves up with their own grenades. But he was bitter about what he regarded as the craven behaviour of the Uzbeki police and border guards. "Two policemen shot themselves in the legs with their own pistols to keep out of the fighting," said the officer, adding contemptuously: "As if we could not tell the difference between a bullet fired at point blank range and a real battle wound!"

The fighting in the mountains north of the town of Termez on the Amu Darya river was one of several clashes that erupted in Uzbekistan last month when guerrillas from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) tried to set up bases in remote border regions.

This is not difficult to do. The soaring peaks and deserted valleys where the borders of three Central Asian states - Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan - meet is perfect terrain for guerrillas. The frontier itself writhes backwards and forwards like a demented snake, allowing Islamic fighters easy access to safe havens outside Uzbekistan. One IMU unit shocked the government by appearing in a resort district 50 miles north-east of Tashkent, where many of the local élite have holiday villas.

The Uzbeki officer, met by chance in Tashkent and who did not want his name published, admitted the fighting in the mountains had been hard. But he was confident the 50,000-strong Uzbeki army would hold its own in the flat plains of the heavily populated Fergana valley, where it can use its armour against the guerrillas.

In theory the IMU's guerrillas, numbering between 1,000 and 1,500, should pose no threat. The Uzbeki President, Islam Karimov, rules his 24 million people with an iron hand and can rely on well-organised and brutal security forces, which have in the past responded to any signs of opposition with mass arrests. Officially the country's prison population is 63,000 but human rights organisations say it may be as high as 200,000. One diplomat in Tashkent said: "Often they arrest all the male relatives of a suspect, plant drugs on them and give them long sentences."

The guerrillas seem intent for the moment on establishing bases in remote mountainous regions inside Uzbekistan or just across the border in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. They are well equipped, with the latest sniper rifles, night-vision equipment and grenade launchers and generally move in groups of 10 to 15 men, only fighting when they are detected.

The guerrillas may be small in number but they have certain advantages. They are led by Juma Namangani, an Uzbek who fled to Tajikistan in 1992 from the Fergana valley, a region long regarded as something of an Islamic stronghold. He gained military experience fighting alongside the Islamic opposition in the Tajik civil war, which ended in 1997. His present headquarters is at Tavildara in central Tajikistan in an area over which the Tajik government has little authority.

President Karimov and his secular government are keen to portray Mr Namangani as a cat's-paw of an Islamic fundamentalist conspiracy, linked to radicals in Afghanistan and Chechnya. The US says he has ties to Osama Bin Laden, the Saudi Arabian fundamentalist who is America's bête noire in the region, and has recently added the IMU to its list of foreign terrorist organisations.

The IMU does have some support from the Taliban in Afghanistan where Tahir Yueldashev, the organisation's spiritual leader, is a frequent visitor. It also has money, which its enemies say comes from the heroin trade. Some sources in Tashkent deny this and say the IMU can still draw on the $3m-$5m ransom it received for releasing four Japanese geologists it took hostage last year.

"The IMU is a strange mixture," says one local observer. "Only about 20 per cent of them are really religious. Another 50 per cent are Uzbeks forced out of the country by persecution and 30 per cent are criminals on the run. But all have good weapons and they can fight."

So far Mr Namangani has won no important military successes in his bid to destabilise President Karimov, but these are early days. His first incursions began in 1999. Some of the most serious fighting has been in southern Kyrgyzstan, which guerrillas have to cross to reach the Fergana valley.

But President Karimov has two reasons to feel nervous. The guerrillas may manage to tap into the deep social discontent among Uzbeks, who have seen a shattering decline in their standard of living since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. At least half the population is out of work, and the rewards for those in employment are low: a well-qualified engineer in work earns £15 a month, and many factory workers have not been paid for six months.

Russia is also keen to increase its influence in Uzbekistan by offering it protection against Islamic fundamentalism. President Karimov said yesterday that the widespread publicity given to the IMU attacks in the Russian media "had one goal: to suggest to the public that Russian troops should come here or Russian bases should be created here".

Mr Namangani and his bands of guerrillas seem unlikely to bring down President Karimov. Uzbeki culture is still very secular, and the Islamic fighters may struggle to infiltrate the cities and towns of the plain. But the Uzbeki army is equally unlikely to eliminate the fighters in their mountain hideouts. Uzbekistan is facing a long war.