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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Kyrgyzstan Faces Dilemma on Islamic Rebels

OSH, Kyrgyzstan -- Ever since five new nations emerged in Central Asia from the ruins of the Soviet Union, there have been warnings that the region was ripe for Islamic insurrection and insurgency. This summer, just such an insurgency erupted in Kyrgyzstan, the smallest and most democratic country in the region.

In mid-August, a band of about 1,000 religious fighters marched from bases in neighboring Tajikistan, which has been torn by civil conflict for years, across the mountain passes into Kyrgyz territory. They captured a swath of land and 13 hostages, including a Kyrgyz general and four Japanese geologists.

Kyrgyzstan is no great military power, and President Askar Akayev once even suggested that the country's army be abolished as a gesture toward world peace. Nonetheless, with help from neighbors, the 12,000-man Kyrgyz army might be able to crush the insurgency without much trouble.

The army has been held back, however, for fear that the insurgents will harm their hostages, particularly the four geologists from Japan.

Kyrgyz officers want to attack the insurgents. "If we were only allowed to fight, we could take out those terrorists in a couple of days," said Salai, who had stars on his uniform but who refused to give his last name. "Some big political game is holding us back. This is no way for an army to behave."

Kyrgyz leaders feel caught in a trap. They cannot afford to upset their Japanese benefactors, but they fear that inaction will give Islamic extremism a foothold in the heart of Central Asia.

"This is a very serious threat, and we need to approach it soberly and clearly," said Askar Aitmatov, the chief foreign affairs adviser to Akayev. "We are apparently only one component of a larger plot. It is the principal political challenge of Central Asia now.

"The ideal of these people is an Islamic regime, Islamic rule in all Islamic states," Aitmatov said. "In a situation of general economic crisis and hardship, they may bring under their banner those who are dissatisfied and made desperate by the situation."

Osh, the main town in the region where the insurgency is under way, feels different from the rest of Kyrgyzstan. Most people here are ethnic Uzbeks. Many hold orthodox religious beliefs that contrast sharply with the convictions of most Kyrgyz, whose nomadic heritage has made them more spiritual than traditionally religious. In 1990, bloodshed erupted between ethnic Uzbeks and Kyrgyz here, taking hundreds of lives in the worst spasm of communal violence in the modern history of Central Asia.

Tempers have cooled considerably since then, and there is much mixing among the various ethnic groups in Osh. Still, some Uzbeks fear walking through Kyrgyz neighborhoods at night, and vice versa.

Most people here are poor, but conditions are not desperate. Food is cheap because the surrounding soil is fertile.

Lately, armed soldiers have begun appearing on the streets of Osh. Military checkpoints surround the town. There is no palpable sense of fear, but many people are worried.

"Everyone is nervous," said Ravshan Mahmoudov, a hardware vendor at the sprawling bazaar. "There may be more terrorist attacks, and we need to crush them or else the danger will grow. These are very aggressive and strange people who want to kill everyone for God."

What the insurgents want is unclear. At first, they demanded free passage to Uzbekistan, where their leaders said they wanted to launch a holy war.

Some foreign diplomats in Bishkek, the Kyrgyz capital, speculate that the militants may have fled Tajikistan to avoid complying with a recent peace accord there, which requires private militias to turn in their weapons.

Soldiers are swarming through the countryside southwest of Osh, where the insurgents are holed up. They have reportedly formed a semi-circle leaving the insurgents no way out except a return to Tajikistan.

The government has ruled out direct negotiations with the insurgents, but under Japanese pressure has agreed to open indirect channels. Japan has reportedly offered a ransom in excess of $1 million for the hostages.