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Five Countries at Kyrgyzstan Summit Sign Pact to Promote Border Security

By Richard C. Paddock
LOS ANGELES TIMES -- BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan

Facing a growing threat from armed Islamic fundamentalists, the leaders of Russia, China and three Central Asian nations signed a pact Wednesday aimed at promoting security along their vast mutual borders.

With Islamic fighters holding more than 130 people hostage in southern Kyrgyzstan and Russian forces bombing separatists in Dagestan, the five heads of state pledged to cooperate in countering religious extremism, international terrorism and weapons smuggling.

“The issue in question is the creation of a peace zone that would be unique for Asia along the common border of our five countries,” said Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin. “Fighting transnational crime, illegal drug trafficking and arms trade, religious extremism and separatism should be considered pressing.”

While the Bishkek declaration did not spell out a plan of action, it indicates the leaders’ concern over the growth of Islamic fundamentalism along the southern edge of the former Soviet empire.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, millions of people in southern Russia and Central Asia have publicly embraced Islam, reestablishing traditions once widely practiced in the region. Muslim groups such as the Wahhabi sect in Central Asia and the Uighurs in western China have emerged to challenge the rule of Communists and former Communists who hold power.

On the eve of the Bishkek summit, more than 350 Islamic gunmen moved across the border from Tajikistan into Kyrgyzstan, seizing about 130 hostages, including four Japanese geologists and the general who commands Kyrgyzstan’s Interior Ministry troops. Despite an assault launched by government troops hours before Yeltsin and Chinese President Jiang Zemin arrived in Bishkek, the Kyrgyz capital, the rebels seized nine more hostages and expanded their territory to control five villages.

Tajikistan is attempting to recover from five years of war between ex-Communists and Muslim clans over who should rule the country. Another neighboring nation, Uzbekistan, has blamed recent turmoil on Wahhabis and cracked down on suspected sect members.

Russia has already fought and lost one costly war against Islamic fundamentalists, a 1994-96 conflict in the republic of Chechnya, and in recent weeks has battled to drive Chechen-led rebels out of the bordering republic of Dagestan.