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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Kyrgyz Soldiers Battle Militants

BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan -- One soldier and 10 militants were killed Tuesday when government forces clashed with gunmen who have occupied three villages in southern Kyrgyzstan, an official said.

Four Kyrgyz troops were wounded in the shootout, said presidential spokesman Kanybek Imanaliyev. He did not know if any militants were wounded and didn't say what started the battle.

In response to the Central Asian nation's struggle to contain its second hostage crisis this month, Kyrgyz Defense Minister Myrzakan Subanov was sacked Tuesday as gunmen streamed into Kyrgyzstan from neighboring Tajikistan.

A group of about 30 armed men kidnapped seven people last weekend, including a senior Kyrgyz military official and four Japanese geologists, in the remote southern region of Batken following a similar incident earlier in August.

Imanaliyev said there had been no contact yet with the kidnappers, who had also crossed from Tajikistan, and that their demands were unknown.

The number and identity of the initial group and those who followed was also a mystery. They were spreading over a growing area in a crisis increasingly difficult to contain.

"The situation has taken another turn for the worse overnight," Imanaliyev said, adding that Kyrgyz troops had exchanged fire with the intruders late Monday though with no reported losses on either side.

"More armed intruders have crossed from Tajikistan and have begun to spread out. There are already a number of units."

Japan sent its ambassador in Kazakhstan and a team of seven officials from Tokyo to the scene of the kidnapping, Japan's Foreign Ministry said. The four captured Japanese were identified as Toshiaki Ariie, 58; Nobuhisa Nakajima, 49; Hirotaro Fujii, 47; and Haruo Harada, 38.

There have been no ransom demands from the captors, a Japanese Foreign Ministry official said on condition of anonymity. Imanaliyev said the militants' main demand so far was for some 120 local residents to give them food, Interfax reported.

Imanaliyev said Kyrgyz President Askar Akayev had signed a decree removing Subanov for failing to deal with the hostage crisis successfully.

"He did not fulfill the orders given by the Security Council, which were to destroy the armed group that had illegally crossed into Kyrgyz territory," Imanaliyev said.

Kyrgyzstan only just succeeded in containing the first incursion of fighters from Tajikistan, who had kidnapped four locals before releasing them later in return for an unspecified amount of hard currency.

Kyrgyz officials suspect both attacks were by members of the Tajik Islamic opposition movement who had fled the country to avoid being integrated into the official security forces there.

The Moscow-backed secular government in Dushanbe is forming a coalition with the opposition as part of a 1997 cease-fire between the two sides that ended a bloody five-year civil war.

But Tajikistan has denied the charges, saying the fighters appeared to belong to the Uzbek opposition and were on the run after having been accused of trying to assassinate President Islam Karimov in a bomb attack in February.

Dovlat Mamatrizabekov, Tajikistan's deputy security minister, said Monday that the militants were led by Dzhuma Namangoni, an ethnic Uzbek warlord whose gang had been active in Afghanistan and former Soviet republics in Central Asia for several years. The Tajik government has offered to cooperate with Kyrgyzstan in uprooting the militants.

Uzbek jet fighters took part in the first operation to flush out intruders earlier this month, accidentally dropping several bombs on Tajik territory in the process.

The defense ministers of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan met on Monday, Imanaliyev said, although the results of the meeting were not yet known.

The Uzbek government may well offer to help counter the growing numbers of fighters labeled "terrorists" by Kyrgyzstan. Bishkek is eager to clamp down on what it sees as the threat of an extremist Moslem revival in Central Asia, a vast, barren region of five former Soviet republics bordering Russia to the north, China to the east and Afghanistan and Iran to the south.

The growing violence in southern Kyrgyzstan comes at an embarrassing time for Akayev as he hosts the leaders of China, Kazakhstan, Russia and Tajikistan on Tuesday and Wednesday in a summit devoted to regional security.