After 24 hours of violence on the border between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, the two countries have reached a ceasefire agreement. More than 40 people were killed in the violent clash, which broke out on Thursday, 29th April over contested water reserves.
The fighting began as Kyrgyz and Tajik villagers hurled rocks at one another, and escalated when border guards from both sides became involved. Kyrgyz officials claimed that Tajik forces had deployed heavy machine guns, mortars, and an attack helicopter, and that they had opened fire on Kyrgyz vehicles. Casualty figures remain uncertain, but Kyrgyzstan’s Ministry of Health has reported that 31 people were killed and over 150 were wounded on their side. Tajik authorities have yet to release an official death toll, but local media outlets reported that according to regional officials, at least 10 Tajik citizens were killed and 90 were wounded. More than 10,000 Kyrgyz citizens from two border districts were forced to evacuate their homes because of the violence. Several Kyrgyz buildings, including at least one border outpost, a school, and several homes and shops were set on fire, according to Kyrgyzstan’s emergencies ministry, and Tajik authorities claimed that a bridge had been shelled. Each side blamed the other for firing the first shot.
This was some of the heaviest fighting that the region has seen in years, but violent clashes are all too common on the Kyrgyz-Tajik border. Both Central Asian nations are former Soviet republics whose demarcations have caused disagreements since the collapse of the U.S.S.R. in 1991. Around a third of the 1000-kilometer border is still disputed, thirty years later. Vorukh, the de facto Tajik enclave located within Kyrgyzstan where this week’s fighting was centred, is a particularly important flashpoint in the conflict. Territorial and water disputes, along with ethnic tensions, stoke the flames of violence. Tajikistan controls the headwaters of many rivers that supply water for irrigation to Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan. Many sources report that this week’s violence ensued after authorities in the Tajik border city of Isfara ordered the installation of surveillance cameras at a facility on the Isfara River to monitor the quantities of water being used by Tajikistan’s neighbour, causing public outrage.
Later on Thursday, a complete ceasefire was announced jointly by both nations’ respective highest security officials. The ceasefire took effect at 14:00 GMT, but it is reported that some gunfire was exchanged into the night. Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov and Tajik President Emomali Rahmon have spoken over the phone and agreed to meet at the end of May in order to discuss cooperative solutions to the ongoing border dispute. A statement released by President Japarov’s press service said that “[t]he heads of state agreed to resolve the current situation exclusively by peaceful means.” Russia, which has important military bases in both countries, has expressed its concern about the latest violence and emphasized its willingness to mediate the dispute. According to the Russian foreign ministry, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov also encouraged his Tajik and Kyrgyz counterparts to adhere to the ceasefire in a phone call. Although an unequivocal resolution is unlikely, neither Tajikistan nor Kyrgyzstan can afford to allow the conflict to escalate, and many analysts are hopeful that some bilateral steps will be taken to prevent future outbreaks of violence.
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