Last week in Central Asia and the Caucasus, battles between Afghan security forces and the Taliban resulted in a high number of casualties, calling the US peace deal into question, while a deadly demonstration took place in Ghor province over the distribution of food aid during the coronavirus crisis. In Kazakhstan, flooding from a burst dam in neighboring Uzbekistan fueled displacement and protests. Another border clash broke out between Tajik and Kyrgyz residents and security forces in the volatile Batken region, and ceasefire violations continued at varying levels along the Azerbaijan-Armenia-Artsakh Lines of Contact.
In Afghanistan, clashes between Taliban and Afghan government forces continued across the country, leading to more than 350 fatalities. Although the Taliban launched the majority of attacks, the group suffered heavy casualties as pro-government forces repelled dozens of assaults and conducted multiple airstrikes. Meanwhile, the prisoner exchange has continued, with the Afghan government freeing approximately 1,000 Taliban prisoners, and the Taliban releasing over 100 security personnel. However, in light of the Taliban’s refusal to reduce violence, government officials are raising concerns about the wisdom of the exchange. The caretaker director of the National Directorate of Security told Afghan senators last week that the insurgent group was likely using the peace deal with the US to ensure the release of its fighters in order to boost its battlefield performance (Afghanistan Times, 11 May 2020). Also, two top members of the US House Foreign Affairs Committee said in a statement that the Taliban’s continued violence was an “unacceptable violation” of the US-Taliban peace agreement (RFE/RL, 9 May 2020).
Furthermore, Afghanistan was the scene of a violent demonstration last week that reportedly left four civilians and two policemen dead. Demonstrators, angry over what they perceive as unfair food aid distribution during the coronavirus pandemic, clashed with police in Ghor province. The government has launched an emergency relief program to distribute aid to mitigate the economic impact of the pandemic. But residents in Ghor claim that aid was given mainly to people with political connections, rather than those most in need (RFE/RL, 9 May 2020). According to the Biruni Institute, a local economic think tank, coronavirus-related restrictions have caused six million people in Afghanistan to lose their jobs (Al Jazeera, 8 May 2020). Partial border closures with neighboring countries have also disrupted imports, increasing essential food prices (VOA, 9 May 2020). In a country where more than half the population lives below the national poverty line, the coronavirus pandemic will likely continue to exacerbate socio-economic instability in Afghanistan.
Along the disputed border between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, a fresh round of clashes led to the involvement of armed border patrols. On 8 May, Tajik and Kyrgyz villagers hurled rocks at each other and claimed rights to a plot of land in a non-demarcated territory near Kok-Tash village in Batken region. Kyrgyz border guards intervened by firing warning shots, reportedly injuring two Tajik citizens. In response, Tajik border troops fired mortar shells on the area, injuring three Kyrgyz border guards (Reuters, 8 May 2020). Officials in both countries have provided different accounts of the incident, and the event has stalled ongoing diplomatic engagement on the border dispute (Kabar, 9 May 2020). The escalation on the border comes amid a newly emerging coronavirus outbreak in Tajikistan, with reports of overwhelmed hospitals and malfunctioning administration in the country (RFE/RL, 6 May 2020).
In Maktaraal district of Kazakhstan, a dam burst in the neighboring Syrdaryo region of Uzbekistan causing mass evacuations and triggering protests. Gathering in Orgebas, Atakent, Myrzakent, and Zhaylybaev towns of Maktaaral, evacuated villagers protested over the absence of government officials in the region and claimed that they could have saved their livelihoods had they been alerted earlier to the threat (RFE/RL, 3 May 2020). The Kazakh government later announced that housing will be provided for flood victims, although the downturn caused by the pandemic continues to strain the country’s economy (Eurasianet, 16 April 2020). Demonstrations calling for financial assistance have been ongoing since lockdown measures were first imposed in Kazakhstan in early March. Another protest took place last week as a group of women demonstrated in Kyzylorda city, claiming that they did not receive any aid promised by the government. Women have protested over the unfair distribution of social aid prior to the coronavirus emergency, and now that the government has mostly lifted the lockdown measures (The Diplomat, 12 May 2020), unrest will likely continue.
Meanwhile, ceasefire violations between Armenia and Azerbaijan continued at higher levels along the Line of Contact with Artsakh according to Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Defense (MoD), which reported 45 armed engagements last week. Conversely, the Artsakh MoD reported a drop in the number of ceasefire violations committed by Azerbaijan, from 170 in the previous week to 100 last week, although one soldier was killed after a landmine exploded at a defense post in southern Artsakh (Artsakh Republic Ministry of Defence, 4 May 2020, 9 May 2020). Artsakh’s MoD also reported 700 shots from Azerbaijani forces into Armenian positions, a significant drop from 3,500 shots in the previous week, while Azerbaijan’s MoD documented 14 armed engagements along Line of Contact with Armenia.
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