Kyrgyzstan Troops Battle Rebels
BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan (AP) _ Government troops clashed with Islamic militants in southern Kyrgyzstan on Saturday, while defense officials from the region gathered to discuss resolving the week-old conflict.
The latest fighting between government forces and the militants started Friday night and lasted into Saturday morning, the Emergency Situations Ministry said.
The militants occupied five small villages last Sunday in a remote, hard-to-reach area of Kyrgyzstan near the border with Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. They also captured a number of hostages, including four Japanese geologists.
The geologists, identified by the government as Nobuhisa Nakajima, Hirotaro Fujii, Haruo Hahada and Toshiaki Ariie, worked for Japan’s Mineral Mining Agency. The region is rich in gold and minerals.
Kyrgyzstan’s ambassador to Russia said Friday that two government troops and 10 rebels had been killed so far in the conflict.
Defense and foreign ministers from three of Kyrgyzstan’s former Soviet neighbors _ Uzbekistan, Kazakstan and Tajikistan _ agreed Saturday to provide military and any other kind of aid to counter the militants. They gave no details of their aid plans after their meeting in the city of Osh, located near the fighting.
Kyrgyzstan has appealed to its neighbors and Russia for weapons and other equipment to fight the militants, said to number from 200 to 1,000. The Uzbek air force has already launched several strikes on the gunmen, the Interfax news agency said.
Kyrgyzstan on Saturday sent a busload of reservists who fought with the Soviet army in the 1979-89 war in Afghanistan to the conflict zone, whose remote, mountainous terrain is similar to Afghanistan.
The Emergency Situations Ministry reported Saturday that so far 4,000 people have fled the fighting in southern Kyrgyzstan. Aid groups predicted that the number of refugees could rise to 20,000.
Government officials say the group is led by an ethnic Uzbek based in Tajikistan with ties to Islamic separatists throughout the region.
Several reports have said they were members of a group that broke away from the mainstream opposition in Tajikistan that signed a 1997 accord to end a 5-year civil war with the hard-line government.