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World News

Militant gains unlikely in Kyrgyz unrest

LONDON (Reuters) -Provided Kyrgyzstan does not descend into total chaos, its ethnic violence is unlikely to hand gains to militant Islamists whose creeping influence in central Asia is testing nerves from Moscow to Beijing.

Radical groups sympathetic to the Taliban or al Qaeda have had nothing to do with the unrest that has cost at least 176 lives since June 10 in the country’s worst clashes for 20 years.

But analysts say any radical Islamist attempt to use the strife to impose Islamic rule would likely fail since the authorities are on alert for such an effort. Any fears that an Islamist failed state was in the making were misplaced.

“The Afghan/Somali scenario is not very likely,” said Anna Zelkina, at the Center of Contemporary Central Asia and the Caucasus at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies.

“I am sure there will be religious overtones but to my mind they are likely to be on the fringe.”

Islamic militancy has deep roots in the poor region, and Islamist groups have social support, if not political power.

Moscow fears the worsening violence could produce a lawless area in Kyrgyzstan’s south that might one day provide safe haven to transnational Islamic militants and organized crime gangs.

But independent regional specialist Christopher Langton described as unlikely a “worst case scenario” in which militants in parts of southern Kyrgyzstan and neighboring Uzbekistan successfully exploited the instability to recruit and organize.

Even if the authorities’ grip on their security forces had been shown to be tenuous in the latest unrest, “the Kyrgyz have quite a good hand on these (Islamist) groups. I don’t see it going the way of Afghanistan at the moment,” he said.

Instability in the region also concerns other powers, a point noted in a commentary on the ethnic killings by Hizb ut-Tahrir, an Islamist group outlawed in Kyrgyzstan.

GLOBAL POWERS

It said the country’s killings could not be seen in isolation from geopolitical rivalry between Russia and the United States. Only Islamic rule could bring independence from the “hegemony of the regional and global powers,” it said.

“As the two old rivals play their new “Great Game’, Muslim bodies remain mere pawns to be sacrificed,” the transnational group said on the website of its British branch.

Hizb ut-Tahrir, or Party of Liberation, argues it uses only peaceful methods to achieve its goal of establishing a worldwide caliphate -- a theocratic Muslim state.

But regional governments accuse groups like Hizb ut-Tahrir of stoking unrest and seek to crack down on their operations.

The United States watches regional militancy closely because it uses its Manas air base in the north of the country to supply forces fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Kyrgyzstan borders Xinjiang, the frontier region of China that is home to the Uighurs, a central Asian people who chafe at religious and linguistic restrictions of Chinese rule.

Two Russian analysts said the unrest would have little if any effect on Islamist activity in the short term.

But if the situation deteriorated and slid toward total chaos, Islamist groups could take advantage of that and step up their activity. Also, long-term unrest and the perception of unfairness could drive people toward radical Islam as they sought justice or redress for wrongs.

Vitaly Ponomaryov, director of the Central Asia program for the Moscow-based human rights group Memorial, said the unrest in Kyrgyzstan has little to do with Islam and has not produced an uptick in Islamic militant activity.

ISLAMIST RULE NOT LIKELY

“If the situation gets totally out of control, of course the role of jihadists’ groups may rise, but at the moment this is not happening,” Ponomaryov said.

Teymur Huseynov, head of Eurasia Forecasting at Exclusive Analysis consultants, said radical militant groups would exploit the unrest to the “greatest extent possible” but the creation of a separatist Islamist government was not likely at this point.

He said liberal political reform plans by interim leader Roza Otunbayeva, who took power after an April revolt that ousted president Kurmanbek Bakiyev, had wrong footed hardline opposition Islamists who had seen Bakiyev as repressive.

“And of course some Islamists actually support the interim government because its agenda is different (from Bakiyev’s).”

Another Islamist guerrilla group active in the region is the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), but its leaders are holed up in northern Pakistan under military pressure from the authorities there, said Kamran Bokhari of Stratfor consultatncy.

“The chaos in Kyrgyzstan is unlikely to be exploited by Islamists,” he said. “Most of the IMU folks are isolated in Pakistan’s North Waziristan tribal region and thus unable to project power back home,” he said.

(Additional reporting by Steve Gutterman in Moscow)

Reporting by William Maclean; editing by Philippa Fletcher

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