19 killed in Uzbek bombs and shootouts
At least 19 people were killed in a series of bombs and shoot-outs in Uzbekistan which officials Monday blamed on Islamic militants trying to split the Central Asian country from the U.S.-led war against terror.
Uzbekistan has cracked down hard on radical Islamists on its own territory and became a close ally of Washington providing an airbase for U.S. troops operating in neighboring Afghanistan following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.
"This has been committed by the hands of international terror, including Hizb ut-Tahrir and Wahhabis," Foreign Minister Sadyk Safayev told a news conference.
Hizb ut-Tahrir, which aims to set up a pan-Islamic state that would include post-Soviet Central Asia, and the austere Wahhabi school of Sunni Islam are both outlawed in Uzbekistan.
"That's the hallmark of the terrorist acts we have already witnessed abroad," Safayev said. "Attempts are being made to split the international anti-terror coalition."
Hizb ut-Tahrir denied "any involvement whatsoever" saying it "does not engage in terrorism, violence or armed struggle."
In a statement issued in London it said "the finger of blame for these explosions must point at the tyrannical Uzbek regime which has orchestrated such events in the past in order to suppress legitimate Islamic political opposition."
The latest wave of violence began near the ancient Silk Road oasis city of Bukhara where some 10 people were killed and 26 wounded in an explosion in an apartment block which happened, officials said, when a "terrorist" was preparing a bomb.
Three policemen were killed in overnight gun battles with "suspected terrorists" in the capital Tashkent some 375 miles to the northwest, Prosecutor General Rashid Kadyrov said.
Then Monday, two female suicide bombers blew themselves up in separate attacks near Tashkent's biggest bazaar killing three policemen and a child, Kadyrov said. Such methods, he said, were "atypical for our nation and imported from abroad."
President Islam Karimov, visibly tense and dressed in a dark suit, told the nation in a televised address that preparations for the "terrorist acts" had lasted at least six months.
Investigation of the Bukhara blast found large quantities of bomb ingredients in the building and one man was caught bringing 10 explosive devices into Tashkent, state television said.
REPRESSION, TORTURE, RELIGIOUS PRISONERS
A series of killings of officials in Uzbekistan's Fergana Valley in 1997 was blamed on Islamic extremists and led to severe restrictions on any non-state-sponsored Islamic activity.
Under Karimov, in power since Soviet times, Uzbekistan has been sharply criticized by human rights bodies and some Western nations for its intolerance of any opposition and the harsh treatment meted out to political and religious prisoners.
Tashkent has been subject to extremely tight security controls since February 1999 when a series of blasts in the center of the city killed 16 and wounded over 100 people.
Those bomb attacks were blamed on the radical Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), which is closely linked to al Qaeda which the United States holds responsible for the September 2001 attacks on New York and Washington.
Pakistani army spokesman Major-General Shaukat Sultan said Saturday IMU leader Tahir Yuldashev was on the run after being wounded during a two-week offensive on al Qaeda militants in rugged tribal areas of Pakistan near Afghanistan.
He said Yuldashev was the 10th most senior member of al Qaeda and was now hiding somewhere along the Afghan border.