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A wolf in Taliban clothing?

Real or not, the menace of Afghan militants is the talk of this small Kyrgyzstan town.

A Kyrgyz Taigan dog chases a wolf during a hunting festival near the village of Bokonbayevo, some 186 miles east of the capital Bishkek, Aug. 24, 2007. There is new talk of Taliban insurgents having made their way to tucked-away corners of Kyrgyzstan. (Vladimir Pirogov/Reuters)

UZGEN, Kyrgyzstan – Washington’s mounting offensive against the Taliban may be causing ripples in this distant, dusty southern Kyrgyz town.

Details are difficult to confirm independently, but analysts and local officials insist that Islamic militants are filtering back from Afghanistan into this corner of ex-Soviet Central Asia (see map below).

The motives of the militants, if they exist, are difficult to discern. Some may be looking for a safe haven to regroup and then return to Afghanistan; others may have decided to open a new front and focus their energies on trying to topple the wobbly local governments, especially in next-door Uzbekistan. And others – members of Central Asian groups once allied with the Taliban but now in steep decline – may simply be returning home.

Whatever the case, law enforcement bodies here appear to be at the moment battling pockets of extremely well-armed individuals and groups. In Tajikistan, officials have cut off the Tavildara region to outsiders as they attempt to rid the area of what they say are Afghan insurgents. In Uzbekistan in May, officials said a militant attack killed a policeman in a southern town. Last month, Kyrgyz officials staged two raids in the country’s south – first in Jalal-Abad, where they said they killed five gunmen, and then in Kosh-Korgon, a small village outside the regional center Uzgen, killing three. In total, authorities say they have arrested 18 people for “assisting international terrorist groups.”

The Kyrgyz State Committee for National Security, the successor to the KGB, said that the leader of the “destroyed terrorist group” was Khasan Suleimanov, who was born in Osh, Kyrgyzstan in 1977 and was trained in “international terrorist centers in Pakistan,” agencies reported. Other information, however, indicated that a number of the gunmen may have been Russian-speakers who were not from the area.

The militants stockpiled weapons and may have had links to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, a group bent on deposing the authoritarian regime of Uzbek President Islam Karimov and establishing an Islamic state. Uzbek officials say that the IMU has carried out numerous terrorist attacks inside their country, though the movement itself usually does not claim responsibility.

What is certain, however, is that the IMU is allied with the Taliban – fighting alongside the Afghans during NATO’s campaign in 2003-2004, and then possibly later in Pakistan. But many security analysts believe that western forces may have eradicated the IMU as a functioning organization.