BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan — The foiling of a terror plot by Islamic extremists in southern Kyrgyzstan over the weekend has underscored ethnic and regional tensions before presidential elections in Central Asia’s only parliamentary democracy.
The National Security Committee of Kyrgyzstan (GKNB) detained 11 members of the Islamic Jihad Union on Oct. 8 as part of a security operation in the southern province of Osh, according to GKNB leader Keneshbek Dushebayev.
“We had serious information that a group of people, related to international extremist organizations, was preparing a number of acts of terror in the run-up to the presidential elections,” Mr. Dushebayev said in the capital this week.
One suspect evaded capture and hijacked a bus in the market town of Kara-Suu, but was shot to death by a GKNB sniper, Mr. Dushebayev said. The search continues for eight suspects as the country prepares to vote in a new leader.
The Oct. 30 election will decide who succeeds caretaker President Roza Otunbayeva, leader of an interim government since President Kurmanbek Bakiyev was forced to flee the capital amid a popular revolt in April 2010.
The favorite to take the presidency is Almazbek Atambayev, a northerner and a key figure in the overthrow of Mr. Bakiyev. Mr. Atambayev served as prime minister in the interim government until stepping down to run his election campaign.
His most serious competition comes from Kamchybek Tashiev and Adahan Madumarov, Kyrgyz nationalists from the south.
Mr. Atambayev, who is widely seen as the candidate most likely to be able to unite the country, is expected to win the first round of votes and face either Mr. Tashiev or Mr. Madumarov in a second round of voting.
Some see the upcoming election as a chance for Kyrgyzstan to regain stability that has been lacking since the ousting of Mr. Bakiyev. Others say they are worried.
“There are too many unhappy people ready to show dissatisfaction, and the threat of attacks is becoming serious and could affect the presidential elections,” said Sheradil Baktygulov, an independent political analyst in Bishkek, the capital.
Many see the biggest challenge facing a new president is the political divide between the north and south of the country: The conservative south was a stronghold for Mr. Bakiyev. After he was ousted in the north, clashes broke out between Krygyz nationalists supporting Mr. Bakiyev and the ethnic Uzbek minority, most of whom sided with the provisional government. Those riots in June 2010 left more than 400 dead — mostly ethnic Uzbeks.
A report by the independent Kyrgyzstan Inquiry Commission released a year later suggested that Kyrgyz security forces had been involved in violence against Uzbeks in the riots, and it criticized the government for failing to prevent the unrest.
Analysts say the upcoming election is an opportunity for the Kyrgyz security forces to further flex their muscle.
“The arrest of [these] terrorist suspects is good opportunity for the GKNB to demonstrate to the public its readiness to act hard and fast when and whatever is needed,” said Mr. Baktygulov.
Still, human rights activists accuse the GKNB of using terror attacks against ethnic Uzbeks in southern Kyrgyzstan.
Gapirov Ravshan of Justice-Truth, a human rights group in Osh, cited numerous incidents of police brutality toward Uzbeks over recent years and said that the security operation this week fitted that pattern.
Uzbeks make up about 15 percent of the population and are concentrated in the south.
“If we take into consideration all the circumstances in [Kyrgyzstan], the nationalism and the [riots] in the south of the country and events after — beatings, arrests and unlawful killings — the current developments in Kara-Suu, in my opinion, can be seen as a continuation of terror against Uzbeks in the south,” said Mr. Ravshan.
In 2008, Mr. Ravshan himself was charged with being member of the banned Islamist party Hizb ut-Tahrir after he wrote an article accusing the mayor of Osh of acts of genocide against ethnic Uzbeks.
He was acquitted after several months in prison, but Mr. Ravshan believes he was one of many falsely labeled a terrorist as part of a campaign against the Uzbek population.
A report by Human Rights Watch earlier this year said that Uzbeks, who generally are more religious than ethnic Kyrgyz, are the target of police harassment, and that investigations into the 2010 massacre had been heavily biased.
The majority of convictions have been against Uzbeks, and Human Rights Watch found evidence that they were often reliant on confessions extracted under torture.
“Uzbeks in the south of the country live like herds of sheep without a shepherd, where the hungry jackals could attack at any time,” said Mr. Ravshan.