Central Asia War Seen As Battle Over Drugs

ALMATY. Kazakhstan A little-noticed war that claimed at least nine more lives this week in remote southern mountains in Central Asia has more to do with the lucrative drug trade than with Islamic militancy, observers say.

And the conflict between rebels and government troops in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, they said, is likely to rumble on for quite some time.

The Kyrgyz and Uzbek governments, engaged in the latest outbreak of fighting since early August, say the rebels are militants from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan committed to overthrowing Uzbekistans secular President Islam Karimov.

They also say the rebels are hiding in mountains in a third former Soviet state, Tajikistan, at a point where the borders of the three countries meet, although Tajikistan denies this.

But participants in a conference in Central Asias largest state, Kazakhstan, said religious extremism was less of a factor in the conflict than control of lucrative drug smuggling routes.

"Drugs are the only resource in Kyrgyzstan," said Chinara Zhakypova, Kyrgyz regional director of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting. "Religion may be a reason for the fighting, but if so its in second or third or fourth place, behind drugs."

Afghanistan, to the south of Tajikistan, is a major opium producer and much of it is thought to be smuggled through former Soviet Central Asia to Russia and Western Europe.

Opium is the easily processed raw material of heroin.

The Tajik-Afghan border is patrolled by over 10,000 Russian guards, who in the last two weeks reported seizing and destroying over a ton of raw opium. But much more is thought to get through, and the valuable trade is worth fighting for. Fighting broke out in the same area last year. The obscure conflict attracted wider international attention after four Japanese geologists working in Kyrgyzstan were kidnapped by rebels, though they were later safely released.

The violence faded in autumn with the return of snow, making the remote region inaccesible, but resumed this year as soon as the passes were open again.

The region is said to be an ideal place for drugs since the world widely ignores it.

General Khusain Berkaliyev, head of Kazakhstans border troops, told the conference the regions armies, especially Kyrgyzstans, were better prepared after last years fighting.

"They leared important lessons from last years events and their tactics are better," he said.

But despite this, Kyrgyzstan says 29 of its troops have died so far this year compared with 23 in the whole of 1999.

Smaller numbers of Uzbek forces have also been killed. The exact number of rebel dead is unkown, but put in the hundreds.

Despite the troops increased readiness, Berkaliyev said he saw no solution to the problem.

"Yes, I think its possible," he said, when asked about the prospects of the conflict dragging on for several years.

Zhakypova was even more pessimistic.

"This is a war with no rules," she said. "Sadly, I see it as a long-term problem."

Western diplomats in Kazakhstan say Central Asia is an ideal place for drug cultivation and smuggling precisely because the world pays it so little attention.

But as instability becomes a way of life, foreign powers take more notice.

Russia says it is prepared to offer Uzbekistan military assistance to defeat religious extremists, although the Uzbeks have denied asking for help.

And the United States military invited journalists last Sunday to watch 250 U.S, Kazakh and Turkish paratroopers jump from four aircraft at the start of a major military exercise.

The exercise, Centrasbat 2000, unites U.S. troops with the Kyrgyz, Uzbek, Kazakh and Russian armies as well as those of Mongolia, Turkey and Britain. It is now in its fourth year.

Major Joe LaMarca of the U.S. army said there was no significance in the fact the exercise was being held at a time when violence in the region had erupted.

But the presence of foreign troops could be a sign that big powers are acknowledging local problems in a remote part of the world may become a major international issue in future.