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Wednesday, November 3, 1999 Published at 23:07 GMT

World: Asia-Pacific

Action against Central Asian militants

Kyrgyz soldiers have clashed with Islamic militants from Tajikistan

Russia has taken the unusual step of holding joint military exercises with the central Asian republics of Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrghyzstan.

The week-long exercises took place in the strategic Fergana Valley in Uzbekistan and in neighbouring Kyrgyzstan where, less than two weeks ago, Islamic militants seized control of a number of villages in the nearby mountains.

Louise Hidalgo reports: "Central Asia wants to rid itself of armed militants"
The aim of the exercises was to find a way to stop Islamic militants from infiltrating Fergana, where almost one-fifth of the Central Asian population lives.

"At today's meeting, special attention was paid to measures to destroy the rebel groups", Russian Defence Minister Igor Sergeyev told a news conference.

Last August, Islamic guerrillas launched an attack in southern Kyrgyzstan in which they took four Japanese geologists hostage. They have now withdrawn to Tajikistan and released the hostages.

Officials in Uzbekistan believe they are the same rebels responsible for a series of bomb blasts in Tashkent last February, targeted at President Islam Karimov.

The aim of the armed militants is still unclear.

Bases "must be destroyed"

The Uzbeks believe that most of the militants are ethnic Uzbeks who want to infiltrate the Fergana Valley, already the most pro-Islamic region of the country.

The Kyrgyz authorities are convinced that their aim is to turn the mountains in Kyrgyzstan that overlook Fergana into a semi-permanent 'Islamic Zone'.

Despite vowing never to let Russian troops back on its soil, Uzbekistan is now indicating it would be ready to take joint military action with Russia early next year against the militants.

The Uzbek Defence Minister Khikhmatulla Tursunov said it was essential to destroy the bases where the militants were trained.

"By spring, we shall be ready to launch attacks in places where people may try to illegally cross into our country", he said.

Earlier attempts to flush out the rebels backfired when Uzbek war planes accidentally bombed civilian targets in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

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