Kyrgyzstan: Uzbek Control of Relay Tower Ups the Stakes

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Uzbekistan’s control over a communications relay station on a disputed mountain on the border with Kyrgyzstan leaves the latter vulnerable to being cut off from mobile, internet and broadcasting services.

Kyrgyzstan’s State Committee for Information Technology and Communication sought to reassure the public on August 25, however, with a statement saying that transmission of radio and television stations had not been disrupted by the situation at Kerben station on Ungar-Too mountain.

An Mi-8 helicopter carrying seven Uzbek policemen landed on Ungar-Too on August 22. The police officers shortly afterward detained four Kyrgyz citizens working at the relay facility, accusing them of being there illegally.

The Kyrgyz communications agency met with representatives from major telephony and broadcasting companies to coordinate on the fallout of the standoff.

“According to information given by communications providers, at 1500 hours [on August 25] telephone, mobile, internet, as well as state television and radio transmissions, in analogue and digital formats, at Kerben were being carried out as normal,” the agency said in its statement.

That is only half reassuring though, since the Uzbeks could presumably suspend signals being relayed by Kerben at will. There is no immediately available public information about the reach of territory covered by retransmission services at the Kerben station.

As far as it is possible to establish from media reports of events leading to the current impasse, trouble seems to have stemmed from a confrontation between Kyrgyz and Uzbek security forces at the Kasan-Sai reservoir, which is in the same area as the Kerben station. The reservoir is located inside Kyrgyzstan, but is claimed by Uzbekistan, which points to the fact that it built the facility in Soviet times and continued to maintain it ever since as grounds for its position.

Russian news agency Sputnik’s Uzbek service reported that around August 13, Kyrgyzstan’s Scorpion unit tried to use force to enter the Kasan-Sai reservoir for reasons unclear. The Uzbek police guarding the reservoir are said to have repelled that act of purported intimidation amid an exchange of gunfire, but one Uzbek policeman was reportedly captured by the Kyrgyz side.

Kyrgyzstan has not confirmed that version of events, but an Uzbek police officer was indeed detained and has since been released with a fine for trespassing.

The helicopter landing at Ungar-Too appears therefore to be a response to that claimed act of intimidation, but since the Uzbek policeman has been let go, it is clear Tashkent is upping the stakes.

The ultimate goal is to guarantee full access to Kasan-Sai reservoir. Kyrgyzstan currently maintains police checkpoints to the facility, to Uzbekistan’s evident displeasure.

Control over the Kerben station is obviously a strong card for Tashkent, although resorting to a staunchly military gambit takes the territorial dispute in a worrying and dangerous new direction.

Kyrgyzstan’s communications agency is adamant there is no risk of a signal cutoff any time soon. In the event of electricity to the relay station being interrupted, diesel-powered generators will automatically kick and keep the station going, the agency has said.

As to the fate of the four detained Kyrgyz men, not much is clear.

Kyrgyzstan’s deputy prime minister Zhenish Razakov on August 26 said, somewhat helplessly and inaccurately, that the matter was under the control of the country’s leadership.

Negotiators are in talks with the Uzbek government to settle the fate of the quartet.

“We are maintaining constant communication with the relatives of the four detained citizens of Kyrgyzstan,” Razakov said.

Apparently not reassured, relatives of one of them men, Urmat Berdaliyev, held a picket in the southern city of Osh on August 26, accusing management at Kerben of failing to do enough.

“It has already been five days since they detained four employees of the station, but nobody has moved a finger. Everybody palms off responsibility off somebody else. They are too busy with these nomad games and nobody is thinking of the people taken hostage,” Berdaliyev’s brother, Aziz, told AKIPress news agency.

Meanwhile, Razakov has doubled down on his government’s defiant stance over Ungar-Too.

“Kyrgyzstan’s position on Ungar-Too is known — the [status of this] territory is not resolved. And so we cannot understand the position of Uzbekistan,” he said.

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