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Fighting on disputed Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan border leaves 13 dead

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Kyrgyzstan said Friday that its death toll in armed clashes with Central Asian rival Tajikistan had reached 13, after the pair agreed a ceasefire following the worst fighting along their disputed border in years.

Kyrgyzstan’s health ministry said that it had suffered 134 casualties “including 13 fatalities”, with two of the injured in a serious condition. A girl born in 2008 was among the casualties, it said.

Over 10,000 citizens had been evacuated from two districts bordering Tajikistan where the fighting had been most intense, Kyrgyzstan also said.

The government of Kyrgyzstan’s Batken region – which borders Tajikistan – said the citizens had been “placed in specially organised points” in its administrative centre, “or went to visit relatives”.

Military units from the two countries began exchanging fire on Thursday, but later that day a ceasefire was announced by Kyrgyzstan’s foreign ministry from 8pm, with armed forces returning to their bases.

Tajikistan acknowledged the ceasefire in a statement published by its state information service early on Friday, saying the two sides “came to a mutual agreement to end the armed conflict, to withdraw personnel and military equipment to places of permanent deployment”.

A representative of the police in Kyrgyzstan’s Batken region said that shooting had continued during the night “but not intensively”. Shooting occurred “between both military units and civilians,” he said.

The clashes that erupted along the border between the two poor, mountainous countries were the heaviest in years and had raised fears they might escalate into a wider conflict.

More than a third of their border is disputed, with the area surrounding the Tajik enclave of Vorukh, where Thursday’s conflict erupted, a regular flashpoint over territorial claims and access to water.

Tajikistan, a closed authoritarian state, made fewer statements as the clashes unfolded, noting that two citizens had been admitted to hospital, with one in a serious condition.

Its security committee accused Kyrgyz soldiers of opening fire on Tajik troops at the Golovnaya water distribution point, located on the Isfara River.

It said Kyrgyz and Tajik civilians had become embroiled in a dispute over river infrastructure on Wednesday.

Residents on both sides threw rocks at each other before clashes escalated and the sides began exchanging gunfire, according to the security agencies of both countries.

Kyrgyzstan’s President Sadyr Japarov called for restraint, urging citizens to not allow themselves to be provoked.

Videos shared on social media showed people on the Kyrgyz side sitting in a trench with the sound of gunfire in the background. Another video showed several houses – purportedly those evacuated by Kyrgyz villagers – set ablaze.

Border disagreements between the three countries that share the fertile Fergana Valley – Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan – stem from demarcations made during the Soviet era.

The knotting, twisting frontiers left several communities with restricted access to their home countries.

Uzbekistan, the most populous country in the region, offered on Thursday to help mediate the conflict.

Russia, a strategic ally of the two rivals, said it was monitoring the conflict.