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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Uzbeks Search Hills Near Resort for Rebels

GAZALKENT, Uzbekistan — Uzbek soldiers combed hills near a vacation resort Wednesday for Islamist rebels who entered the country last weekend and have advanced to within 100 kilometers of the capital, Tashkent.

The gunmen are believed to be holed up near the resort of Bostanlyk, northeast of Tashkent, after breaking through a border post on the Kyrgyz-Uzbek frontier Saturday.

A law enforcement source said in Gazalkent, a town close to the resort, that the gunmen numbered about 15, contradicting reports that 200 rebels had invaded.

The rebels, believed to be members of the fundamentalist Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, crossed into Uzbekistan near the village of Burch-Mulla, just 70 kilometers from Tashkent.

"About 15 Wahabbists arrived at the border post at about 10 p.m. on Saturday and shot dead the chief sergeant and an ensign," the source said, speaking on condition of anonymity. "They buried the officers’ bodies and took four soldiers hostage, though one of them later escaped."

The gunmen, whose puritanical brand of Islam is often referred to as Wahhabism in Central Asia, are thought to have bases in nearby Tajikistan. The three nations share borders in a rugged mountainous area that has proved extremely difficult to police.

Stating their aim as the overthrow of Uzbek President Islam Karimov’s secular government, the rebels fought fierce battles with Kyrgyz troops in past weeks after invading from Tajikistan.

Kyrgyzstan said Wednesday that the two countries had set up a battalion to jointly guard the border areas of the Dzhalalabad and Tashkent regions. Central Asian leaders agreed last week to step up cooperation to repulse the attacks.

Uzbekistan has the largest army and air force in Central Asia and is likely to have greater success against the rebels than tiny Kyrgyzstan, which struggled for almost three months last year when hundreds of gunmen invaded its mountainous south.

Dozens of Mi-8 helicopters and fighter jets were flying over the hills of Bostanlyk, where health spas have been evacuated.

Armored cars and soldiers carrying automatic weapons cruised the area, while all roads to Tashkent were lined with checkpoints that stopped all passing vehicles.

"The area has been surrounded, but we have so far failed to locate the gunmen," a second source said.