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Uzbekistan: One Week Later, Many Questions Still Unanswered About Recent Violence

  • Bruce Pannier --> It has been a week since explosions and gunfire rocked the Uzbek capital Tashkent and the ancient Silk Road city of Bukhara. Much remains unclear about the violence. Who exactly was responsible? Why did they use the tactics they did? And why has the country's Interior Minister been out of sight?

Prague, 8 April 2004 (RFE/RL) -- It has been a week since explosions and gun battles in Uzbekistan left 47 people dead -- including 33 alleged terrorists -- and more than 30 injured. Ten police officers and four civilians were also among the dead.

The Uzbek government has blamed radical Islamic groups, though little evidence has been made public to support such theories. Adding to the confusion has been the silence of Uzbek officials and the absence of key figures in the government at a time when information and reassurance would seem to be what the public needs.

Uzbek President Islam Karimov provided the latest official update on last week's events while on a state visit to Latvia yesterday.

"A week, eight days have passed since that day,” Karimov said. “The proof that we have gives us confidence that we will find the roots [of the violence]. Now we have a lot of evidence. The roots [of the violence], who was behind it, what forces have prepared it, during this week -- [all that] will be revealed."

Karimov's cautious comments seem to indicate the authorities are unsure who was behind the attacks in Tashkent and Bukhara, despite their initial reaction that it was the work of the banned religious group Hizb ut-Tahrir or the more radical Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.

Karimov said 28 people are in custody on suspicion of being involved in the attacks. Karimov also said he has "instructed investigators not to rush, so that no innocent people suffer." International rights organizations had warned of the probability of mass arrests of nonviolent Muslims in the wake of the attacks.

In an article posted on the website, independent Uzbek journalist Sergei Yezhkov asks whether the extremist acts in Uzbekistan can seriously be considered international terrorism. Yezhkov notes that while the first suicide bomber -- a woman in Tashkent -- was clearly targeting police, the actions of subsequent bombers are harder to explain.

Yezhkov points out that, according to Uzbekistan's Interior Ministry, 20 suspects surrounded by police in a building chose to blow themselves up rather than resist arrest, take hostages, or surrender.

Yezhkov says these suspects had ample opportunities to blow themselves up in crowded areas, which would have led to massive casualties. Instead, Yezhkov says, "They consistently blew themselves up when it was possible that the only victims would be themselves."

In an interview with RFE/RL's Uzbek Service, Yezhkov said he believes the suicides were to protest the lack of hope of being heard or understood by the authorities.

"I don't think this was terrorism in the classic sense of the term 'terrorism.' This was a mass act of protest, an action brought about by desperation -- in the first place, by the social and rights situation [in Uzbekistan]. These were people who had lost all hope of conducting a political dialogue with the authorities, in conducting a meaningful dialogue with the authorities, and they simply demonstrated their discontent and disagreement with the authorities," Yezhkov said.

Prosecutor-General Rashid Kadyrov told a news conference late last week that journalists should trust only the information given to them by Uzbek officials. Kadyrov cited a report on a Russian television news program as an example of why outside reports should not be trusted.

"One example, the Russian information program 'Novostei' on [Russia's] channel NTV, has been giving absolutely unreliable information that in Uzbekistan there is a full-fledged war under way, that militants have seized a kindergarten, that the militants tried to blow up a dam, and then [NTV] showed footage of terrorist acts from February 1999," Kadyrov said.

Another mystery is why Kadyrov, and not Interior Minister Zokirjon Almatov, has been addressing the media about the situation. The head of the Interior Ministry would normally be heading such an investigation. Almatov, however, has not been seen publicly since before the attacks.

Equally unclear are the identities of the attackers. A previously unknown group, calling itself Islomii Jihad -- Uzbek for Islamic Jihad -- has claimed responsibility.

Hizb ut-Tahrir -- which has no known history of violence -- immediately denied any role in the attacks.

The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) is still in existence, despite taking heavy casualties in Afghanistan at the start of the U.S. bombing campaign there in late 2001. But the last reports about the group came from the Southern Waziristan tribal area in Pakistan, where IMU leader Tahir Yuldash was reportedly wounded in fighting with Pakistani forces just days before the attacks in Uzbekistan.

(Oktambek Karimov and Shukrat Bobojonov from RFE/RL's Uzbek Service contributed to this report.)