Cars damaged during a firefight on the Kyrgyz-Tajik border are seen near the settlement of Koi-Tash, Batken region, Kyrgyzstan, April 30, 2021.  © 2021 Elaman Karymshakov/Sputnik via AP

Update: On May 3, 2021, Tajik authorities reported that 14 houses were fully destroyed, 4 buildings including a secondary school were damaged, and 15,000 people were evacuated from the three districts of Isfara, in Tajikistan’s Sughd region, bordering Kyrgyzstan. Radio Ozodi, the Tajik service of Radio Free Europe, identified 16 people, including 8 civilians, killed during the fighting in the Sughd region.

At least 41 people, including civilians, among them a young girl allegedly hit by mortar fire, have been killed and hundreds wounded in border clashes between Tajik and Kyrgyz forces since April 28. The fighting has affected at least a dozen villages in the Kyrgyz districts of Batken and Leilek, which both border Tajikistan, with the former surrounding the Tajik exclave of Vorukh.

Media reports  indicate that all 17 houses in Kok-Terek village in Kyrgyzstan’s Batken district were burned and that other dwellings were set on fire or destroyed in several villages in the Leilek district. Kyrgyz authorities said a school had been burned and that six are now being used as temporary shelters for internally displaced people. A Tajik media outlet reported that some civilians were evacuated from at least one village.

The clashes reportedly began after a violent dispute between Tajik and Kyrgyz civilians over the installation of surveillance cameras at a water distribution point near Vorukh drew in security forces from both countries. A ceasefire concluded late on April 29 appeared to hold as late April 30.

Images circulating on social media since Thursday and seen by Human Rights Watch show armed Tajiks in civilian clothing walking around burning houses and a bulldozer destroying the outer wall of a compound in line of sight of Tajik soldiers. Both videos were reportedly filmed inside Kyrgyzstan.

Explosive weapons delivered by mortars, artillery, and rockets have wide area effects due to inaccuracy, a large blast radius, or the simultaneous delivery of multiple munitions. If further fighting, both countries’ forces should avoid the use of explosive weapons with wide area effects in populated areas. The laws of war, which apply to border skirmishes, require parties to the conflict to distinguish between military targets and civilian objects, including houses, schools and medical facilities that are not used for military purposes, with a view to protecting civilian lives. Indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks are prohibited.

Security forces from both countries should also actively prevent citizens from committing cross-border crimes against individuals and property.

The burning of scores of houses and the reported use of explosive weapons with wide area effects should prompt Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to immediately investigate civilian casualties and the destruction of civilian property, with a view to holding those responsible for serious laws-of-war violations to account, and provide appropriate remedies to civilians.