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Wednesday, November 3, 1999 Published at 23:05 GMT

World: Asia-Pacific

Analysis: Central Asia's Islamic battle

Islamists are fighting for the Fergana Valley

By Eurasia Analyst Malcolm Haslett

Tension has eased slightly in Central Asia since the withdrawal to Tajikistan of the Islamic militants who recently fought a series of battles with the Kyrgyz army, and the release of their last hostages, four Japanese geologists.

Opinions vary as to what was the aim of their incursion into the remote southwest of Kyrgyzstan. The Uzbeks still argue that the Islamist force was made up largely of ethnic Uzbeks and that their aim was clearly to infiltrate Uzbekistan's populous Fergana valley, the most pro-Islamic region of the country.

The Kyrgyz authorities, however, disagree. They think the aim was to turn the mountains in Kyrgyzstan overlooking Fergana into a semi-permanent 'Islamic Zone', from which to spread their influence in all directions.

Whatever the truth, all the Central Asian governments, and Russia, want to prevent it happening again.

Their joint exercises were aimed, it's said, at counteracting 'trans-national terrorism' and ensuring the security of the whole region.

But some of the Central Asian governments clearly want to go further than that.

The Uzbeks in particular would like to strike at the Islamists in their main bases, in the Jirgatol region of north central Tajikistan. The involvement of Tajikistan would be essential if this is to happen.

Delicate political balance

But there are problems. First of all, the Tajiks and Uzbeks are not on very good terms - with the Tajik leadership resentful of Uzbekistan's assumption that it can dictate to other countries in the region.

Secondly, Tajik involvement in any strike on Islamists inside Tajikistan threatens to upset the delicate political balance inside that country.

Tajikistan faces presidential elections this Saturday, one of the crucial moments in a long, internationally-sponsored peace process designed to reconcile ex-communists and secularists with Islamists.

Tension has risen sharply there in recent weeks, as opposition candidates - including the Islamic Revival Party candidate, Davlat Usmon - have been barred or withdrawn from the election. This leaves only the ex-communist incumbent, President Rakhmonov, in contention.

Mr Rakhmonov may reckon that if he wins the election on Saturday, however hollow his victory may be, he would have a mandate to act more assertively against the Uzbek and Tajik Islamists in the centre and east of his country.

On the other hand, this would almost certainly jolt his relations with the Islamic opposition in Tajikistan, together with whom he's supposed to be rebuilding the country's unity.

It would certainly make more sense in the long term to try and persuade Tajikistan's more moderate Islamic politicians to curb the excesses of their armed brethren in the hills.

So far, however, they've shown little inclination or ability to do this.

And President Rakhmonov may be under heavy pressure after his re-election, from Russia and Uzbekistan in particular, to allow some sort of 'anti-terrorist' operation, as they see it, on Tajik territory.

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