In October 1998, a large train shipment of weapons and munitions en route from Mashhad, Iran to United Front forces in Afghanistan was intercepted and impounded at the rail terminus in Osh, Kyrgyzstan.235 During the period April-July 1999, Human Rights Watch investigated the circumstances surrounding this significant shipment.
Arms Hidden in Aid Shipment
In actuality, the covert shipment that originated in Iran was spread among three different trains.241 Between October 4 and October 6, 1998, two shipments from Mashhad arrived at the Osh-1 station as part of larger trains; one shipment consisted of six wagons, the other ten.242 Another wagon with identical documentation arrived within a third train during the night of October 12-13. According to a Kyrgyz government document obtained by Human Rights Watch, the shipment of October 12-13 originally consisted of five wagons. This information was confirmed by a Kyrgyz journalist who told Human Rights Watch that, in fact, five rail cars en route to Osh were stopped in Bekabad, Uzbekistan.243 According to this source, of the five cars stopped, only one was ultimately allowed to continue on to Osh, with two rerouted back to Iran and two impounded by Uzbek authorities.244
The rail station at Osh is not the closest in the region to the Afghan frontier. Indeed, both Dushanbe and Kuliob, Tajikistan, are closer to the border and connected to the former Soviet rail network. Moving sensitive cargos through Osh, however, allows the shipment, during its transit through Tajikistan, to move through a single contiguous administrative and political territory-Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast-directly along the M41 road and former Stalin Track to the border crossing at Ishkashim. According to local experts, there is less danger of an arms shipment being intercepted and seized for local use along this route, as opposed to the rail lines to Dushanbe and/or Kuliob, which cross ethnically heterogeneous territory controlled by numerous different armed formations.245 Furthermore, the Osh-1 train station, thanks to its history as a Soviet military depot, is well equipped with the necessary storage and loading infrastructure to handle shipments of arms.246
On October 9, the sixteen wagons then on the track at the Osh-1 station were officially inventoried by Osh MNB and customs officials. Four days later, at 10:00 a.m. on October 13, the late-arriving boxcar was similarly searched. A total of approximately 700 tons of weapons and ammunition was found, concealed amid 300 tons of flour.247 Eyewitness reports as well as photographs in Human Rights Watch's possession confirm that the train's contents included: antitank mines, F-1 grenades, 122mm artillery shells, mortar bombs, and 122mm rockets. The 300 tons of flour on board the train were, according to one source, sufficient to produce bread to sustain a force of 5,000 men for a twenty-week winter period.248 This flour, according to the Kyrgyz government, was eventually delivered to northern Afghanistan. When questioned about the fate of the munitions on the train, United Front officials denied ever receiving the shipment; however, these officials had previously told a Western intelligence official in October 1998 that they had received the contents of the shipment. (See above.)
The shipping documentation accompanying the seventeen boxcars from Mashhad listed the consignee as the Embassy of Iran in Kyrgyzstan and the contents as "humanitarian aid" bound for Afghanistan. Inside the wagons, crates of weapons were surrounded and covered with bags of flour.249 Osh customs officials found that the overall weight for the 17 wagons was approximately 1,000 metric tons. This figure was too high for the boxcars to have been loaded exclusively with flour and triggered their suspicions.250
Kyrgyz Government Knowledge
A Kyrgyz government official in Bishkek told Human Rights Watch that the Kyrgyz ambassador to Iran, M. Aseyinov, met with an Iranian deputy minister of foreign relations on September 23, 1998, at which time a request was made for permission to transit "humanitarian and special" cargos to Afghanistan.251 This account has since been publicly confirmed by Kyrgyz minister of foreign affairs, M.S. Imanaliev.252
Human Rights Watch obtained a copy of a letter that discusses the Iranian shipments. The letter, dated October 7, 1998, appears authentic. It was written by a Kyrgyz official in Osh and addressed to Minister of Foreign Affairs Imanaliev. (See Appendix II, Figure B.) Translated from the Russian, it reads as follows:
Head of the Osh oblast Committee for Foreign Economic Ties,
This letter indicates that Kyrgyz authorities first of all were aware of the presence of the Iranian cargo at least as early as October 6 and did not, as they at first publicly claimed, discover the trains during the night of October 9-10. This also supports local journalists' allegations that the "special cargo" from Iran sat, unopened, at the Osh station for up to five days, from October 4 to October 9, before being searched and "discovered." The contents of the letter also suggest that the Kyrgyz government had warning of the train's approach when it was still in Uzbekistan, since the author of the letter, referring to the second installment of the shipment, mentions five more wagons still en route. As mentioned above, four of the five wagons in this second consignment were either rerouted or impounded in Bekabad, Uzbekistan. The letter, then, makes clear that Kyrgyz authorities were made aware-most likely by Uzbek rail or government authorities-of the train's approach before it reached the Kyrgyz border, in fact, before it had even reached Bekabad, on the Uzbek-Tajik border.
The exact reasons the arms shipment was stopped are not entirely clear. From interviews it appears that the search, seizure, and eventual return of the train to Iran were apparently the result of miscommunication and missteps within different branches of the Kyrgyz government, combined with Kyrgyz domestic politics.
Workers at the Osh-1 railroad station, as well as an employee of the Osh customs office, told Human Rights Watch that the train was detained and searched on orders of the chief of the Osh Customs Department at the time, I. Masaliev, and the head of the Osh MNB, Col. O. Suvanaliev.253 According to one unconfirmed report, Masaliev and/or Suvanaliev may have been unaware of the "special" contents of the Iranian boxcars, and thus ordered them searched after being unable to locate Abdyldaev, the Kyrgyz deputy foreign minister named in the letter (above). Once the wagons were officially opened and the contents exposed to public and media scrutiny, it was too late to proceed and the Kyrgyz government denied any foreknowledge of the shipment. This explanation is consistent with the facts and is supported by the Kyrgyz government's only concrete reaction to the scandal: Suvanaliev and Masaliev-the two men instrumental in exposing the shipment-were unceremoniously fired.254
According to several independent sources, other, smaller shipments of armaments transited Osh from Iran en route to Afghanistan prior to the October 1998 incident. None of these, however, approached the October shipment in size; according to a Kyrgyz truck driver who claims to have helped deliver one such shipment to Gorno-Badakhshan, these cargos did not exceed one metric ton in weight.255
Since the Iranian arms scandal in October 1998, there has been no indication of any further arms shipments from Osh to Afghanistan. However, the matter remains extremely sensitive within Kyrgyzstan.
Implications: Multinational Complicity in the Covert Shipment of Arms
The scores of heavy trucks that would have been required to transport the 700 tons of arms and 300 tons of flour seized in Osh could not have traveled from Osh to Khorog or Ishkashim on the Afghanistan border without the knowledge and permission of Russia's military and its foreign ministry. In addition to the fact that the Russian army transportation battalion regularly patrols and maintains the main M41 road from Osh to Khorog, Russian Border Guards in Kyrgyzstan are based in the town of Gulcha, through which the consignment from Iran would have passed had it not been halted.257 A shipping agent based in Osh with experience in transporting freight through Tajikistan told Human Rights Watch that a high level of cooperation with Russian forces is necessary just to get a convoy of trucks from Osh to Gulcha, since it requires interfacing with two separate Russian military commands: the Russian transportation battalion based in Osh and the Border Guards forces based in Gulcha.258
235 For the nature of the contents, please see the section on Iran in chapter IV above.
236 Institute for War and Peace Reporting, Daily Update, vol. 5, no. 198, October 15, 1998.
237 "Kirghiz foreign ministry denies involvement in arms scandal," Xinhua News Agency, October 12, 1998.
238 "Boepripasy vernutsia v Iran?," Vechernii Bishkek (Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan), October 21, 1999.
240 Human Rights Watch interviews with Amrullah Saleh, Dushanbe, Tajikistan, May 29, 1999; and with a former Western intelligence officer, April 14, 1999. Diplomatic sources in Dushanbe also told Human Rights Watch (in June 1999) that the munitions ultimately found their way across the border to Afghanistan and that the wagons sent back to Iran were empty.
241 Human Rights Watch interview with a local shipping agent who works at the Osh-1 station, Osh, Kyrgyzstan, July 1, 1999.
242 Railroad officials at sorting stations in CIS countries have the authority to consolidate wagons into trains. Human Rights Watch interview with a foreign shipping manager, Almaty, Kazakhstan, May 24, 1999.
243 Human Rights Watch interview with Alisher Toksonbaev, editor, Asaba newspaper, Osh, Kyrgyzstan, July 2, 1999.
244 The temporary seizure of these boxcars in Bekabad was confirmed to Human Rights Watch by a Western journalist who was there on or around October 10, 1998. Human Rights Watch e-mail communication with the journalist, April 1999.
245 Human Rights Watch interview with Mahamaja Hamidov, deputy editor, Echo Osh newspaper, Osh, Kyrgyzstan, July 3, 1999. Trucking industry sources in Osh have told Human Rights Watch that the planned route for the Iranian "humanitarian" cargo was: Mashhad (Iran) to Tejen (Turkmenistan) to Charjou (Turkmen-Uzbek border) to Samarkand (Uzbekistan) to Bekabad (Uzbekistan) to Osh, and then by truck from Osh to Gulcha (Kyrgyzstan), Murgab (Tajikistan), and on to the border crossing at Ishkashim. Human Rights Watch interviews with a local trucker and Kyrgyz government officials, Osh, Kyrgyzstan, July 1-3, 1999. The "Stalin Track" is the old road that runs directly along the Tajik-Afghan border from Khorog down through Ishkashim and up to Langar. (See "Pamir Track" below.)
246 During a visit to the Osh-1 station in July 1999, Human Rights Watch saw sixty-foot loading docks, storage warehouses, and cranes for loading/unloading cargo. Truck parks are also conveniently located next to the train lines.
247 Human Rights Watch telephone conversation and brief interview with a Kyrgyz official who claimed to have assisted with the inspection and inventory of the cargo, Osh, July 2, 1999.
248 A source with Western military experience told Human Rights Watch that approximately three to four kilograms of flour is consumed as bread per week per man on average, when supplemented with fresh meat and vegetables. Murgab-one of the transit points between Osh and the Afghan border-has a mill that relief organizations use to grind wheat in order to make bread.
249 This means that the munitions were loaded first, and then a wall of flour sacks was built screening them from the cargo doors of the boxcar; a layer of sacks was also laid across the top of the munitions pallets. Human Rights Watch was able to obtain photographs taken inside one of the wagons that confirmed this arrangement.
250 One boxcar of the type seized in Osh can typically carry forty-one tons of flour, according to shipping experts with experience in delivering humanitarian aid. Seventeen boxcars carrying a total of 1,000 tons of material results in a per-wagon average of 58.8 metric tons carried, just under the sixty-ton maximum load-carrying capacity of a boxcar.
251 Human Rights Watch interview with a Kyrgyz government official, Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, June 30, 1999.
252 K. Karabekov, "MNB Sygralo v yaishik," Vechernii Bishkek, October 14, 1999.
253 On October 8 Colonel Suvanaliev was in Tashkent with MNB chief Ashirkulov. One source close to Suvanaliev told Human Rights Watch that, upon hearing about the train, Suvanaliev hurried back to Osh, where, between 9:00 and 10:00 p.m., he gave the order to have the wagons opened. Human Rights Watch interview, Bishkek, June 30, 1999.
254 Suvanaliev was fired on October 29, 1998. Alisher Niyazov, "Kyrgyzstan to Return Afghan Arms to Iran," ITAR-TASS, October 29, 1998. In Suvanaliev's case, there may have been a strong element of Kyrgyz domestic politics at play in his firing as well: He was reportedly a close associate and head of the election fund for former KGB head and Vice President Kulov, who was prevented from standing as a candidate in presidential elections held on October 29, 2000. "Eight Presidential Candidates out of Election Campaign," Kyrgyz Radio First Programme, September 19, 2000.
255 Human Rights Watch interview, Osh, Kyrgyzstan, July 2, 1999.
256 Information in this paragraph is based on Human Rights Watch interviews with an Osh-based shipping agent, Osh, July 1-3, 1999.
257 The 300 tons of flour eventually did arrive in Afghanistan via Gulcha.
258 Human Rights Watch interview with a shipping agent, Osh, July 1-3, 1999.