A wave of violent incidents and terror attacks struck Uzbekistan on 28-30 March, leaving some 40 people dead. For now, questions outnumber answers.
The violence began with a bomb explosion in the village of Qahramon (Romitan Raion, Bukhara Oblast) on the evening of 28 March. Various sources placed the time of the explosion between 6:30 p.m. and 10 p.m. Tribune.uz, an independent Internet newspaper funded by George Soros's Open Society Foundation, reported on 29 March that the explosion killed 10 people and destroyed an entire house. Pensioner Ne'mat Razzoqov, his son, granddaughter, and a number of male guests perished. Razzoqov's wife survived and was hospitalized.
Uzbek authorities claimed in a 29 March announcement that the Razzoqovs had been preparing explosive devices for use in terrorist acts when the blast occurred. Neighbors described the family as extremely pious, tribune.uz reported. Russia's gazeta.ru wrote that Ne'mat Razzoqov's 25-year-old son was an adherent of Hizb ut-Tahrir. Banned in Uzbekistan, Hizb ut-Tahrir seeks to reestablish the Islamic caliphate; it espouses nonviolent means, but its radical goals and penchant for secrecy suggest to some observers a latent extremist organization. Emergency workers discovered 1.5 tons of explosives in the ruins of the house, tribune.uz reported on 30 March. A rescuer told the newspaper, "If all of the explosives that were in barrels had gone off, there would have been nothing left of the village."
Three policemen were killed in two separate assaults in Tashkent on the evening of 28 March and early morning of 29 March. A report by Uzbekistan's official UzA news agency on 29 March stated that one policeman was killed and one wounded when they were attacked on the night of 28 March after approaching a group of "suspicious individuals" and asking to see their identification. At 5 a.m. on 29 March, three unknown assailants attacked a police patrol, killing two policemen. Their firearms were stolen, CentrAsia reported on 29 March, a detail that would resurface later. In a separate incident in Tashkent on the night of 28 March, one man was arrested and 10 homemade bombs confiscated, CentrAsia and UzA reported.
Numerous sources reported that two suicide bombings took place near the Chorsu market on the morning of 29 March. Most sources said the blasts occurred at 8:30 a.m. and 9:05 a.m., respectively, but accounts varied on times and exact locations. RFE/RL's Uzbek Service quoted an eyewitness as saying that after the first explosion, near a children's store at the market entrance where policeman usually gathered in the morning, he saw seven policemen lying on the ground and a female suicide bomber with part of her torso torn off. A second female suicide bomber reportedly blew herself up at the Chorsu bus stop, killing a small girl and wounding a policeman. Meanwhile, gazeta.ru reported that a male suicide bomber caused the second blast, killing three policemen.
In an unconfirmed report, fergana.ru reported that 10 policemen were killed in the first explosion at Chorsu. The second blast, according to fergana.ru, claimed only the life of a male suicide bomber. An elderly man who witnessed the second blast told fergana.ru: "I saw [the suicide bomber] myself. He was lying near the new tea house with his stomach torn out."
The official report by the UzA news agency spoke of one explosion at Chorsu that killed two people, and a suicide attack at 9:24 a.m. at the Ko'kaldosh madrasah that claimed only the attacker's life. Most news agencies reported three policemen and one child killed in two suicide attacks at the Chorsu market. Uzbek Interior Ministry spokesman Ilhom Zakirov told a news conference later on 29 March that the death toll from all of the events of 28-29 March was 19 killed (including six policemen) and 26 wounded, with 11 suspects in custody.
Events grew even more confusing on 30 March. For much of the day, Uzbek security forces battled suspected terrorists in a Tashkent suburb not far from a neighborhood that contains the homes of high-ranking officials and a presidential residence. AP reported that the incident began with a car stopped at a checkpoint -- two alleged terrorists "jumped out and detonated explosive-laden belts" while others fled to nearby residences. An Interior Ministry spokesman later told AP that 16 alleged militants -- 11 men and 5 women -- were killed in the ensuing fighting. Tribune.uz reported that up to 40 militants may have been involved. Uzbek authorities later claimed, somewhat unconvincingly, that 20 terrorists blew themselves up when security forces tried to detain them, lenta.ru reported. According to the latter report, three policemen were killed and five wounded.
Some intriguing details emerged about the events of 30 March. AP quoted at least one local resident as saying that the women in one of the cars wore veils and spoke a Central Asian language she could not understand. EurasiaNet reported that three of those killed in the shootout had weapons stolen from police, most likely on 28 March. Finally, an unconfirmed report on fergana.ru stated that a minibus filled with explosives blew up near the Charvak reservoir outside Tashkent. Numerous media outlets noted that if the reservoir's dam were breached, the resulting flood could engulf the capital.
State-controlled Uzbek television did not begin covering the events until the evening of 29 March, when a special broadcast featured an address by President Islam Karimov, tribune.uz reported on 30 March. Before the emergency broadcast, state television had aired a documentary about Jacques Cousteau while other stations merely displayed a blank screen, fergana.ru reported.
Two persistent rumors floated at the margins of news reports and formed the basis of heated discussions on Uzbek web forums. The first was that the Interior Ministry and National Security Service had been placed on high alert in the week preceding the attacks. The second rumor was that policemen were called up for special duty at 3 a.m. the night before events began, and that some policemen had instructed their relatives to remain at home.
Uzbek President Islam Karimov announced in a televised interview on 29 March that extremists with backing from abroad had spent six to eight months preparing the terror attacks. He termed them "evil forces" and described them as hoping "to destabilize the situation." Prosecutor-General Rashid Qodirov was more specific in a news conference the same day, blaming Hizb ut-Tahrir and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.
A spokesperson for Hizb ut-Tahrir denied the charge. Imran Waheed in London stressed that the group eschews violence and suggested that the Uzbek government itself could be behind the attacks.
Muhammad Solih, leader of the opposition Erk (Freedom) Party, condemned the terror attacks while noting that "the political regime of Uzbekistan, with its emphasis on repression against dissidents, has created good conditions for terror." Other opposition figures and groups also mixed condemnation for the attacks with criticism of the government in their statements.
Official international reaction was largely uniform. U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher delivered characteristic remarks, saying: "We'd like to extend our condolences to the government of Uzbekistan and the Uzbek people for the injuries and loss of life caused by these terrorist attacks. The attacks are yet another example of the importance of continuing cooperation against those who would stop at nothing to achieve their misguided goals." U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell told Uzbek Foreign Minister Sodiq Safoyev that the United States is ready to assist Uzbekistan in the wake of the terror attacks, AP reported on 30 March.
The terror attacks come at a time when Uzbekistan is experiencing growing international pressure over its human rights record. One notes that many of the cases that have stirred international indignation took place in the context of Uzbek efforts to contain such Islamist groups as Hizb ut-Tahrir.
Recent reports by International Crisis Group and Human Rights Watch have lambasted the Uzbek government for an egregious and worsening record of human rights violations. The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development will soon make a decision on whether to maintain its current level of engagement with Uzbekistan; most observers view Uzbek economic reforms as stalled.
Finally, the Bush administration faces a difficult decision in the spring over Uzbekistan, where the United States maintains a forward supply base in Uzbekistan to support operations in Afghanistan. A recent State Department report gave Uzbekistan low marks on human rights, and government-to-government assistance programs totaling some $50 million will have to be axed unless the Bush administration decides to waive the human rights requirements. Domestic pressure has been building on the issue, with a number of op-eds and editorials in "The Washington Post" condemning Uzbekistan's human rights record, questioning the country's usefulness as a U.S. ally in the war on terror, and urging increased U.S. pressure on the Karimov regime to take action on human rights issues.
While only Uzbek officials seemed ready to assign blame for the attacks, some independent observers were willing to offer cautious analytical comments. Aleksei Malashenko of the Carnegie Moscow Center told "The New York Times" on 30 March that the attack was similar to the recent bombings in Spain in that it targeted a U.S. ally. In separate comments quoted on polit.ru, Malashenko noted: "In addition to the goals set by Al-Qaeda and other international Islamist organizations, there was another goal here -- to show Karimov and the entire Uzbek establishment that they're not the sole rulers of the country. Uzbek Islamist terrorists are trying to influence the domestic situation; they're pursuing their own goals."
The domestic situation was the primary focus of concern for other observers. Sergei Yezhkov, a journalist from Uzbekistan who was recently dismissed from a state-controlled newspaper for being too outspoken, contributed two articles to fergana.ru in response to the attacks. In the first, on 30 March, he wrote: "I recall the words of one of my colleagues, who spoke immediately after the first explosions rang out in Tashkent. 'This is the shot from the Aurora,' he remarked bitterly." In a later comment, Yezhkov remarked that calm had returned to Tashkent by the morning of 31 March and "the acts of violence and terror that unexpectedly befell the country ended as quickly as they began."
Yezhkov suggested that the organizers had hoped to spark a general uprising. "Knowing the true attitude of most people toward the police," he wrote, "those who prepared the acts of terror probably hoped to be met with understanding and support [among the populace]." But Yezhkov noted that the vast majority of Uzbeks, however much they might dislike a police force viewed as corrupt and often brutal, chose to uphold the law in the face of instability. Still, he warned, "Even though they were using live ammunition, these suicidal individuals' plan misfired. This was no 'shot from the Aurora.' But we should not forget it, for it is important to remember its causes."
Finally, Esmer Islamov, a "freelance journalist specializing in Uzbek political affairs" writing under a pseudonym, opined on EurasiaNet on 30 March: "The broad scope of the violence...suggests that the episode may be a home-grown insurgency, rather than a strike by international terrorists." He concluded, "It may be the work of a new group, with its origins rooted in the despair generated by the Karimov government's stranglehold over the country's political and economic life."
Only one conclusion emerges clearly from the events in Uzbekistan at this early stage. The above-noted similarity between the attacks in Madrid and Uzbekistan -- both are U.S. allies -- is offset by a glaring difference: the attack in Madrid was intended to kill a large number of ordinary people; the attacks in Uzbekistan primarily targeted policemen and do not appear to have been designed to cause significant civilian casualties. The pattern of such presumed Al-Qaeda attacks as Madrid, Bali, and even Casablanca does not hold in Uzbekistan. Even if a subsequent link to a radical Islamist group emerges -- for now, the only evidence is the piety of the Razzoqov family and the participation of veiled women -- the attacks appear to have been regime-focused, and not just murderous mayhem.
Significantly, a similar focus on regime was evident in initial reactions to the bombings at the Chorsu market. RFE/RL's Uzbek Service reported on 29 March that police beat an old man to death at Chorsu on 28 March after he interceded in a dispute between police and saleswomen. EurasiaNet reported on 30 March: "A palpable hostility for the police could be felt among onlookers at the Chorsu bazaar.... Some mentioned an incident the day before the blasts occurred, in which a vendor had been beaten to death by police." RFE/RL's Uzbek Service recorded similar emotions: "But most of the traders and witnesses at Chorsu linked [the bombings] with the incident on 28 March when police beat a 78-year-old man to death at Chorsu."
If its initial reactions are any guide, the Uzbek government is likely to try to demonstrate as much similarity as possible between the attacks in Bukhara and Tashkent and such strikes as Madrid, Bali, and Casablanca -- stressing foreign ties and underscoring an Islamist presence in the form of such organizations as Hizb ut-Tahrir and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. Barring a convincing claim of responsibility, only a thorough and professional investigation can show whether these elements were indeed present. At the same time, the Uzbek government will probably say as little as possible about another possible scenario that it would very much like to avoid -- a violent, Islamic-inflected domestic resistance movement that feeds on popular resentment and strikes at regime targets.