Kyrgyz Killing Compounds Tensions

The killing of a well-known religious leader by security forces in Kyrgyzstan this month has increased tensions in Central Asia's densely populated Fergana Valley, which is caught in a spiral of worsening conflict between radical Islamists and authorities.

Mohammad Rafik Kamalov, the imam of a mosque in the town of Kara-Suu, died in a reported shootout between police and the two passengers of his car, who also were killed. Kyrgyz authorities charge that the two men were Islamic militants who were planning terrorist attacks in the country.

In the initial official version of events, Kamalov, a self-proclaimed opponent of violence, secretly was working with Islamic fighters. But many of his supporters asserted that security forces killed an innocent man. Authorities then backtracked, saying they did not rule out the possibility that Kamalov had been a hostage.

Neither of the versions bodes well for peace in the increasingly radicalized Fergana Valley, a fertile region divided between southern Kyrgyzstan, eastern Uzbekistan and northern Tajikistan with an explosive mixture of faith, poverty and anger. The valley, with a population of about 12 million, has long been viewed as the heartland of fundamentalist Islam in Central Asia.

On Friday, several thousand protesters in Kara-Suu demanded the terrorism accusations be lifted and that Kamalov be declared a martyr, the Russian news agency Interfax reported.

"Some of his family members do not believe that Kamalov was in the same car as terrorists," Alisher Khamidov, an analyst with the Fergana Research Group, an organization of scholars and researchers, said by telephone from Osh, one of the valley's major cities.

"They say he went to a wedding party and was coming back with some guests, not terrorists. … The security people who killed Kamalov haven't presented credible evidence that he belonged to the extremist organizations they claim."

The Kyrgyz National Security Service, in a statement reported by Interfax, said that when he was killed Aug. 6, Kamalov was driving a car carrying two militants from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, a guerrilla organization fighting to establish an Islamic state in Central Asia. It has been blamed for a string of attacks in Uzbekistan going back to the late 1990s.

The statement added that the two slain militants were citizens of Tajikistan suspected of attacking checkpoints on the Kyrgyz-Tajik border in May.

In interviews at his home and mosque in Kara-Suu a few days before his death, Kamalov, 53, said it was his duty to urge people to follow Islamic law. "You are now able to judge a man by how often he prays in a day," he said.

The imam criticized Uzbek President Islam Karimov, a former communist who runs the country as a secular state.

Khamidov, the analyst, said anger over the imam's death and a security crackdown targeting suspected Islamic militants now "is galvanizing the population." Critics in this region have long warned that attempts to control a resurgent Islam through repression of its more radical adherents risk a backlash.

Authorities in many post-Soviet states have particularly targeted Hizb ut-Tahrir, or Party of Liberation, which mixes fundamentalist beliefs with the call for an Islamic state throughout Central Asia and eventually the entire Islamic world. The party professes an adherence to nonviolence, but authorities view it as linked to militants.