Kyrgyzstan reported “intense battles” with Tajikistan on Friday and said its Central Asian neighbour was moving forces and equipment to the border in the latest outbreak of violence to hit the former Soviet Union.
Both of the small impoverished landlocked nations have accused each other of restarting fighting in a disputed area, despite a ceasefire deal.
In a statement, the Kyrgyz border service said its forces were continuing to repel Tajik attacks.
“From the Tajik side, shelling of the positions of the Kyrgyz side continues, and in some areas intense battles are going on,” it said.
Kamchybek Tashiev, the head of the Kyrgyz state committee on national security, was quoted by Russia’s RIA news agency as saying military casualties had been high.
“The situation is difficult and as for what will happen tomorrow – no one can give any guarantees,” he said. Thousands of people have already been forced to evacuate.
Separately, RIA cited a source as saying that 17 people, including 11 Kyrgyz border guards, had been killed.
Earlier in the day Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov and his Tajik counterpart Emomali Rakhmon agreed to order a ceasefire and troop pullback at a regional summit in Uzbekistan, Japarov’s office said.
Kyrgyzstan reported fighting in its southern Batken province which borders Tajikistan’s northern Sughd region and features a Tajik exclave, Vorukh, a key hotspot in recent conflicts.
The same area is famous for its jigsaw-puzzle political and ethnic geography and became the site of similar hostilities last year, also nearly leading to a war.
Clashes over the poorly demarcated border are frequent, but usually de-escalate quickly.
Border issues in Central Asia stem to a large extent from the Soviet era when Moscow tried to divide the region between ethnic groups whose settlements were often located amidst those of other ethnicities.
Both countries host Russian military bases. Earlier on Friday, Moscow urged a cessation of hostilities.
The clashes come at a time when Russian troops are fighting in Ukraine and a new ceasefire appears to be holding between former Soviet states Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Kyrgyzstan has said that Tajik forces using tanks, armoured personnel carriers and mortars entered at least one Kyrgyz village and shelled the airport of the Kyrgyz town of Batken and adjacent areas.
About 18,500 people have already left the area, Russia’s RIA news agency cited the Red Cross as saying.
In turn, Tajikistan accused Kyrgyz forces of shelling an outpost and seven villages with “heavy weaponry”.
Temur Umarov, a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace focussing on Central Asia, said the remote, agricultural villages at the centre of the dispute are not economically significant, but that both sides have given it an exaggerated political importance.
Umarov said that governments in both Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan have come to rely on what he called “populist, nationalist rhetoric” that made an exchange of territory aimed at ending the conflict impossible.
Another Central Asia analyst, Alexander Knyazev, said the sides showed no will to resolve the conflict peacefully and the mutual territorial claims provoked aggressive attitudes on all levels.
He said only third-party peacekeepers could prevent further conflicts by establishing a demilitarised zone in the area.