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More Violence In Uzbekistan, Tashkent Blames Islamic Extremists

Prague, 30 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Violence in Uzbekistan continued for a third day today, with Uzbek special forces reportedly engaging in a gun battle with militants.

The fight was reported to be taking place about 15 kilometers northeast of Tashkent, near the residence of Uzbek President Islam Karimov.

A Foreign Ministry spokesman, Ilkhom Zakirov, said the gun battle was spurred by an early-morning operation by special forces attempting to "expose and exterminate" an unknown number of alleged terrorists.

Also today, a Western diplomat cited police sources as saying a man blew himself up in a car while being chased by police, and that a separate shootout had erupted at a Tashkent apartment during a police raid in which authorities were reportedly attempting to capture three suspected assailants.

There is little independent confirmation of the reported events, but if true, they appear to indicate police are conducting sweeps of Tashkent and its surroundings in an attempt to track down militants.

Security measures are being strengthened in the Uzbek capital, with patrols by beefed-up groups of police and servicemen. Access to Tashkent has been limited, with all incoming cars undergoing thorough inspections. All of the city's kindergartens have been closed.

No casualties have been reported in connection with today's alleged clashes. But 19 people have already been reported killed and 26 wounded in the previous two days of violence in Tashkent and the central city of Bukhara, which included two suicide bombings, bomb explosions, and a police shootout with suspected militants.

The violence began on 28 March with a blast that killed 10 people at a house used by alleged terrorists in Bukhara.

The Associated Press reports two separate assaults on police on 28-20 March, which left three officers dead. Later that day, two suspected suicide bombings -- carried out 30 minutes apart -- reportedly killed three policemen and a child, in addition to the bombers, both women.

No organization has claimed responsibility for the attacks. But Uzbek officials have been quick to blame Islamic activists.

In a national television address last night, Karimov blamed Islamic extremists seeking to "destabilize the situation in the country and sow anxiety, fear, and panic among the people."

"If we look back at the events one by one and try to draw a lesson, I would say that all these attacks were very well planned in advance and the preparation, in all aspects, was from outside. The support came from extremist centers which have large funds and opportunities," Karimov said.

The president said that backing for the attacks might have come from Hizb ut-Tahrir, a banned radical Islamic group.

Hizb ut-Tahrir representatives in Britain denied responsibility for the violence and condemned the killing of innocent civilians. The group, which does not have proven ties to violent activism, advocates the peaceful establishment of an Islamic state, or caliphate, throughout Central Asia.

A special government commission led by Karimov today launched an investigation into the violence.

Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan have all taken measures to tighten security along their borders with Uzbekistan following the attacks.

Moscow today strongly condemned the attacks, the worst since a bombing in Tashkent in 1999 that left 16 people dead.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Aleksander Yakovenko appeared to back up Karimov's allegations that Islamic extremists were behind the violence, saying the perpetrators of such acts recognize no geographical, political, or religious boundaries.

A spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry said today Beijing condemned what he called the "terror acts" in Uzbekistan, and called for an increase in international efforts to fight terrorism.

U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher yesterday criticized the bomb attacks as a senseless act of violence.

"First, let me make clear that we strongly condemn the senseless act of violence that occurred in Uzbekistan. We'd like to extend our condolences to the government of Uzbekistan and the Uzbek people for the injuries and the loss of life caused by these terrorist attacks. The attacks are yet another example of the importance of continued cooperation against those who would stop at nothing to achieve their misguided goals," Boucher said.

According to Uzbek Foreign Minister Sadyk Safayev, the attacks are aimed at undermining the U.S.-led coalition against terrorism:

Uzbekistan has offered its support to the U.S.-led campaign in Afghanistan, and U.S. troops are using a military base in the southern Uzbek city of Khanabad for operations.

(RFE/RL's Uzbek Service contributed to this report.)