A new Islamic group that “heralds bloody wars” and a “territorial free-for-all” is extending its influence across mineral-rich and strategically important Central Asia, according to official Russian sources.

The U.S. and NATO have been involved in Central Asia since the collapse of the USSR, seeking to increase their influence with the former Soviet republics in the region. U.S. and European petroleum corporations are also active in the area, which has oil and gas reserves comparable to those of the Persian Gulf.

Muslim fundamentalists are seeking “to establish Islamic regimes throughout Central Asia,” and “intend to spread their influence into the Caucasus,” a region already plagued by bitter warfare.

The statements were carried by the Voice of Russia World Service, the official broadcasting service of the Russian government.

Long-time guerrilla leader Juma Namanghani formed the “Islamic Movement of Turkistan,” basing the new organization upon his earlier group, the “Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.” Namanghani ordered the change during an organizational meeting held in one of his bases in Afghanistan.

The term “Turkistan” is the former name for Central Asia and represents the landmass extending from China to the Caspian Sea. The term was used into the Soviet era.

Reports indicate that Islamic militants are extending their influence even beyond “Turkistan” and into the predominately Muslim Chinese province of Xin Jiang, also known as Uyghuristan, a name derived from its Muslim inhabitants.

The Central Asian region has a long history of prolonged struggles for independence, first against the Czars — the area was not fully incorporated into the Russian Empire until the late 19th century — and then against Soviet domination.

Revolts against Soviet control persisted in Central Asia into the 1930’s; resistance to Soviet collectivization ended only in 1936. Communist dictator Josef Stalin extended his terror-famine, which killed millions in the Ukraine, into Central Asia as well.

Russian authorities have long contended that the Islamic militants of Central Asia are closely connected with the guerrillas active in Chechnya and other parts of the Caucasus region between the Caspian and Black Seas.

Moscow fears renewed attacks against its Central Asian allies — especially Uzbekistan and Kirgizia — by Islamic militants based in Afghanistan. The increasingly serious assaults could include “even a march on the Uzbek capital,” Tashkent, according to the broadcast.

The Russian elite know that its influence in the region is sure to increase — to the detriment of U.S. military and economic interests — since “not a single post-Soviet republic in Central Asia is capable of shaking off the Islamic militants on its own,” Moscow declared.

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reports that Russia and its Central Asian allies are developing a “rapid-reaction force” to counter “what is seen as the growing threat of Islamic extremism.”

The rapid-reaction force is to comprise some 1,700 soldiers, with each nation keeping its troops within its own borders. When an assault is launched, the entire force will concentrate in the threatened nation.

Included in the arrangement is an “anti-terrorist center,” with a central location in Moscow and a satellite in Bishkek, the capital of Kirgizia.

The anti-terrorist center will also act as a central repository for domestic and international intelligence information obtained in the region.

According to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s report, access to the new center is highly restricted. The intelligence operation “does not talk to the press.”

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