Uzbek Islamic Rebels Blamed for Rising Violence

BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan — Kyrgyzstan said at least 10 of its soldiers and more than 30 rebel gunmen were killed over the weekend in an outbreak of violence that has spread to three former Soviet states in central Asia.

In neighboring Uzbekistan, state television reported troops had killed at least 10 guerrillas and helicopters were blasting rebels who have been fighting government forces since last week.

Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan say both groups of gunmen are Uzbek Islamic rebels who maintain bases in neighboring Tajikistan. Tajikistan denies the bases are on its territory.

The unrest has fueled new fears of cross-border security threats in the impoverished, ethnically mixed region.

A Kyrgyz Defense Ministry spokesman said Sunday an undisclosed number of government soldiers were also wounded in heavy fighting in remote mountain gorges near the southern town of Batken. Rebel gunmen had split into small groups and troops were hunting them down, he said by telephone.

The reports could not be confirmed from the field.

The gunmen have been slipping across borders in an area of rugged mountainous terrain and tiny ethnic enclaves where the three Central Asian countries converge.

With violence spreading, defense, interior and national security ministers of the three countries held an emergency meeting in Batken on Saturday and agreed to confront the threat jointly, setting up a headquarters in Tajikistan.

So far, Kyrgyz and Uzbek military reports have mostly described successes against the gunmen.

"As a result of an intensification of the fighting, the majority of the bandit groups have been destroyed," a Kyrgyz Defense Ministry spokesman said Sunday. "A subdivision of the southern group of troops is continuing to pursue the remaining bandits and at the same time we are transferring groups to reinforce positions where the fighters are withdrawing in order to destroy them completely."

Uzbek state television, monitored by the British Broadcasting Corporation, said troops had nearly defeated rebels there, using helicopters to pin down the gunmen in steep and rocky mountain gorges of the Surkhandarya region.

The report said two villages had been evacuated before government forces attacked to drive out rebels over the weekend.

The violence is the worst in the region since hundreds of well-armed men poured into Kyrgyzstan from Tajikistan last year and held four Japanese geologists and several Kyrgyz soldiers hostage for a tense two months.