24 killed, scores wounded in clashes on Kyrgyz-Tajik border

Kyrgyz volunteers gather outside the government building demanding they be sent to the conflict zone at the Kyrgyz-Tajik border, in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, Friday, Sept. 16, 2022. Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan on Friday agreed to a cease-fire on a shared border where clashes earlier in the day wounded 42 people. (AP Photo/Vladimir Voronin) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

MOSCOW (AP) — Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan traded blame for fighting on the border Friday that killed at least 24 people, wounded dozens and prompted a mass evacuation.

Kyrgyzstan's Health Ministry said early Saturday that 24 bodies had been delivered to hospitals in the Batken region that borders Tajikistan. An additional 87 people were wounded, the ministry said.

Clashes on the border that began earlier this week grew into large-scale fighting Friday involving tanks, artillery and rocket launchers. As part of the shelling, Tajik forces struck the regional capital, Batken, with rockets.

Kyrgyzstan's Emergencies Ministry said 136,000 people were evacuated from the area engulfed by the fighting.

It wasn't immediately clear what prompted the fighting on the tense border between the two former Soviet Central Asian neighbors. An attempt to establish a cease-fire quickly failed and artillery shelling resumed later in the day.

Border guard chiefs of the two countries met around midnight and agreed to create a joint monitoring group work to help end hostilities. It wasn't immediately clear whether the meeting had any effect on the fighting.

In 2021, a dispute over water rights and the installation of surveillance cameras by Tajikistan led to clashes near the border that killed at least 55 people.

According to the Kyrgyz border service, Friday's fighting erupted early in the morning, when Tajik forces first fired at Kyrgyz border guards. As tensions mounted, the border service accused Tajikistan of using mortars, tanks and armored vehicles to shell Kyrgyzstan's positions, targeting an airport near the border with multiple rocket launchers and destroying civilian infrastructure.

Tajik border officials, meanwhile, charged that the Kyrgyz forces subjected Tajik border villages “to intensive mortar bombardment and shelling” from “all types of available heavy weapons and firearms.” Tajik authorities said that they proposed negotiations and a cease-fire, but that Kyrgyz troops reportedly ignored the offers.

The Kyrgyz border service later issued a statement saying the two countries’ security chiefs had agreed to cease hostilities starting at 4 p.m., but the truce failed almost immediately.

The presidents of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, Sadyr Zhaparov and Emomali Rakhmon, met Friday at the summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in Uzbekistan. According to a statement on Zhaparov's website, the two leaders discussed the border situation and agreed to task the relevant authorities with pulling back troops and stopping the fighting.

Kyrgyz media said Zhaparov returned to Kyrgyzstan from the Uzbek city of Samarkand and immediately gathered the country's Security Council for a meeting.