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Tuesday, August 24, 1999 Published at 05:34 GMT 06:34 UK

World: Europe

Tajik militants seize Japanese geologists

By Central Asia Correspondent Louise Hidalgo

Militants from Tajikistan have taken hostages in neighbouring Kyrgyzstan for the second time this month.

A presidential spokesman in Kyrgyzstan said a group of 30 armed fighters had captured four Japanese geologists helping prospect for gold in the mountains close to the Tajik border.

The head of Kyrgyzstan's Interior Ministry troops was seized at the same time. He had apparently gone to the site to offer protection after news first emerged that the gunmen had reappeared.

The geologists' translator and another Kyrgyz soldier were also seized.

Villages captured

The presidential spokesman, Kaznybek Imanaliyev, said the attack took place in the early hours of the morning and came after the armed group had captured two villages, Zardaly and Kurgan, which have about 120 residents between them.

It was in the same area earlier this month that the fighters first struck, taking four hostages.

It is still not clear exactly who they are or what their demands are but it is believed they are a mixture of Tajik and Uzbek militants who do not want to be disarmed under a peace agreement in neighbouring Tajikistan.

Kyrgyzstan has sent troop reinforcements to the area but for the small mountain republic the whole incident is highly embarrassing, coming on the eve of a major summit in the capital in which the Russian and Chinese presidents are due to take part.

Border bombing

Hostage takings are a relatively new phenomenon in this part of the world.

There were instances of it during the civil war in neighbouring Tajikistan but the fear is that with that conflict now over, Islamic militants discontented with the peace may now be seeking to move their fight across central Asia's fluid borders.

The incident has already raised tensions in the mainly Muslim region after Uzbek fighter jets last week bombed close to the Tajik border to try to flush out the armed group.

The Tajik Government angrily protested after some of the bombs fell on its territory. But the Uzbeks were unrepentant.

They have long alleged that Uzbek Islamic militants are being trained at secret military camps inside Tajikistan and Chechnya and the Uzbek president has issued a stern warning, saying it is the responsibility of the Tajik Government to bring them under control.

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