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Historical Item: UPI Story on Terrorism Threat in Taskent
Analysis: Terrorism in Tashkent worries U.S.
By Roland Flamini
Chief International Correspondent
Published 3/30/2004 4:04 PM
WASHINGTON, March 30 (UPI) -- Violence in the Central Asian republic of Uzbekistan has left nearly 40 dead and many injured putting the capital Tashkent on high alert and causing concern in Washington that the situation could disrupt allied operations in neighboring Afghanistan.
The violence over the past three days, blamed on terrorists, has resulted in troops ordered out to patrol the streets.
Press reports said at least 20 people died Tuesday in a shootout between police and gunmen holed up in an apartment block in the northern district of Tashkent, close to one of Uzbeki President Islam Karimov's residences. In another incident nearby, two suicide bombers blew themselves up at a police checkpoint, also killing three policemen.
The Russian news agency ITAR-Tass reported a firefight at a checkpoint guarding access to the U.S. embassy in Tashkent. Eight gunmen were killed in the confrontation, ITAR-Tass said.
The incidents began Sunday with an apparently accidental explosion in Bokhara, in the southwest sector of the country. The blast claim 10 lives, and Uzbek officials said the building had been used by terrorists to make bombs.
A total of 19 people were reported dead, and some 20 injured in the 48 hours leading up to Tuesday's clashes. On Monday, two women blew themselves up in separate suicide attacks, one in a busy outdoor market in Tashkent, and the other at a bus stop.
"The black widows have arrived in Uzbekistan" said the Russian paper Vremia Novosti, a reference to Muslim women seeking revenge for husbands who had died in earlier attacks. There were also two clashes at two separate police checkpoints.
Uzbekistan, the largest of the Central Asian republics (population: 26 million), has a vital role in the U.S.-led Operation Enduring Freedom in near-by Afghanistan. The United States established a large forward supply base and an air base near Tashkent in the run-up to the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. Now it provides support for American and NATO forces fighting Taliban and al-Qaida guerrillas in the Afghan mountains, and trying to stabilize the Afghan hinterland.
A U.S. official in Washington said Wednesday that continued unrest in Uzbekistan could seriously undermine Operation Enduring Freedom because "Tashkent is its lifeline," he said. The broader concern in the U.S. capital -- and in Moscow, for that matter -- would be that any serious upheaval in Uzbekistan could start a meltdown among Central Asia's former Soviet satellites.
No group has claimed responsibility for any of the attacks, and observers are somewhat puzzled by the Uzbek government's reaction to them. President Karimov immediately blamed the attacks on the illegal Hizb ut-Tahrir al-Islami (Islamic Party of Liberation) one of the two main Islamic fundamentalist movements seeking the overthrow of his regime. But observers noted that the declared aim of Hizb ut-Tahrir, which besides a large following among Uzbeks is also active in Tajikistan, and Kirghizstan, is to topple the government and bring back the caliphate by non-violent means. On Tuesday a spokesman from the movement's London office denied any connection with the attacks.
The other major organization is the clandestine Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which has carried out terrorist attacks in Uzbekistan before. IMU fighters trained alongside al-Qaida in Afghanistan, and the group is still said to have ties to Osama bin Laden's terrorist organization. Observers feel the IMU would be more likely to have staged the wave of attacks. Hizb ut-Tahrir, on the other hand, has never before been linked to terrorist acts.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan declared, "These attacks only strengthen our resolve to defeat terrorists wherever they hide and strike." He said the Bush administration would work "in close cooperation with Uzbekistan and our other partners in the global war on terror." Privately, however, some officials are concerned that the regime will retaliate by launching a fresh crackdown on opposition Muslim politicians, using the excuse of a terrorist threat. Karimov -- a veteran Soviet apparatchik -- already has a dismal human rights record. There are thousands of political prisoners in the notorious Jaslyk jail, and the United Nations has issued a stern criticism over "systematic" use of torture.
Tough action against Islamic terrorists would also serve to draw Uzbekistan closer to the United States. But when he visited Tashkent in February, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld brought up the subject of human rights with Karimov -- an indication of the Bush administration's discomfort with the Uzbeki leader's repressive tactics. Rumsfeld's visit coincided with the decision of a Tashkent court to free a 62-year-old woman, Fatima Moukhadirova, who had been jailed after staging a public protest following the death in custody of her son, a member of a banned Islamic group. The son had been tortured, and then killed by being thrown alive into boiling water.
As the Russian paper bluntly put it, "The regime is perfectly capable of taking advantage of the attacks to take a harder line against the opposition. After all, he has parliamentary elections soon."
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