Authorities investigating a bizarre triple murder in Bishkek believe it is linked to the practice of sending unemployed Kyrgyz women abroad to find work - many of whom are later forced into prostitution.
Employees of the Kyrgyzstan-registered recruitment firm Peniel, based in the centre of the capital, are currently being questioned following an attack on their offices on July 24.
Two men dressed in women's clothing entered Peniel's office that morning and shot its owners, South Korean nationals Yu Chyn Kyn and his wife Pak Kyng Yung, and a Kyrgyz worker named only as Li. All died instantly. Two other local employees received multiple gunshot wounds and are still in hospital. No arrests have been made.
Robbery is not believed to be a motive as nothing was taken from the scene, so the investigation is focusing on Peniel's business activities, namely their practise of sending Kyrgyz women to work in South Korea.
"At the moment, we have no evidence that the employees were killed by victims who wanted revenge on those who condemned them to a life of prostitution. However, the investigation is leading in this direction," said Alexander Pashenko, press secretary of the Bishkek internal affairs administrative office.
South Korea, along with the United Arab Emirates, Germany and Turkey, has become a popular destination for impoverished young Kyrgyz women eager to find work as dancers, waitresses or nannies. However, when they arrive, their jobs can turn out to be very different.
The most common method of trafficking women is to set up a firm that claims to provide highly paid work abroad yet does not ask prospective employees for special skills or qualifications. According to the internal affairs ministry's migration service department, there are eight such companies registered in Kyrgyzstan.
Additionally, many tourist agencies send young Kyrgyz women abroad, where many become prostitutes.
Bishkek resident Tatyana - who is not associated with Peniel - is one victim of this trade between Kyrgyzstan and South Korea. "I divorced my husband when I was 26 years old. I have an engineering degree and tried to find a job, but I was either turned down or offered a pittance," she told IWPR.
"Finally, a friend advised me to apply for work abroad, and I got a job as a nightclub dancer in Seoul. My contract stated that my travel to South Korea would be paid for and free accommodation provided for my first fortnight, after which 2000 US dollars would be deducted from my salary."
However, after two young men met Tatyana at Seoul airport and took her to the club where she was supposed to work, her passport was taken from her and she realised that she had been duped.
"When I started to protest, the two men raped me," she said. "I was forced to become a prostitute, serving up to 15 clients a night, and the pimps took two thirds of my earnings. My only goal was to make as much money as I could to buy my way out. It took me two years."
As Kyrgyzstan and South Korea are yet to ratify an intergovernmental agreement to ensure the rights and freedoms of their citizens in each other's territory, many more women may be in danger.
Following the murders, all Peniel's documents and computer records have been seized by police and studied as part of the investigation.
One diskette reportedly contained images of young women in what the authorities describe as "revealing" poses - increasing suspicions that the firm's business activities hold the key to the motive.
IWPR attempted to talk to the company's employees in an attempt to trace and contact women who have been sent to South Korea, but this proved impossible. All refused to comment on the grounds that an investigation was underway.
Peniel is an entirely legal operation, which is registered with the migration service department of the foreign affairs ministry. According to one senior official, Jumagul Chotkaraeva, the firm has not violated Kyrgyz law during its existence, and no problems have come to light. "Judging from the photographs that Peniel has shown us, the girls are fine," she said.
"However, we examine the accounts of such firms once every quarter and have often asked their managers to send us women who have been abroad so we can learn about the conditions they lived and worked in. So far, not a single girl has come to us."
Kubat Otorbaev, IWPR's Reporting Central Asia, No. 137, August 13, 2002