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Uzbek Special Forces In Shootout As Violence Enters Third Day

Prague, 30 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- At least 20 people were killed today in Uzbekistan as special Interior Ministry forces engaged suspected militants in a gun battle in the capital Tashkent.

Reports are still sketchy, but as many as 16 armed fighters and three policemen died in the shootout, which took place near the home of President Islam Karimov.

About 100 meters away, two suicide bombers were killed when they detonated their explosives at a roadside checkpoint. Three policemen were reported killed in that explosion and five others wounded.

There is little independent confirmation of the day's events, but if the reports are true, then it appears that the police are conducting sweeps of Tashkent and its surroundings in an attempt to track down militants.

Some 19 people were reported killed and 26 wounded in bombings and shootings yesterday and 28 March in Tashkent and the central city of Bukhara. The events mark the worst outbreak of violence in the country since independence in 1991.

RFE/RL's Uzbek Service bureau chief, Rakhmatjan Kuldashev, describes the scene from Tashkent today.

"The authorities are making no comment about the situation. There is an area in Tashkent surrounded by troops. Our correspondent happens to be inside this area and keeps in contact with us. He heard bullets buzzing by, explosions, and saw bodies on the ground. He says that there were dead bodies. That is what is happening there," Kuldashev said.

Security in the capital has been beefed up and access to the city has been restricted. The city's schools are closed.

The violence reportedly began on the night of 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 that night and the following morning that left three officers dead. Later that day, two 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 militants.

In a national television address last night, Karimov said Islamic extremists were 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 backing for the attacks might have come from Hizb ut-Tahrir, a banned radical Islamic group.

Hizb ut-Tahrir representatives in Britain have 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.

Karimov was expected to address the population again today.

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

A spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry today called for an increase in international efforts to fight terrorism.

A U.S. State Department spokesman yesterday assessed the bomb attacks as a senseless act of violence.

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

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