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Uzbekistan: Who's Behind The Violence?

At least 40 people have been killed in three days of violence in Uzbekistan between special forces and suspected militants. The violence has included alleged suicide bombings, a car bomb, and a fierce shoot-out at an apartment block. Authorities are pinning the blame on Islamic radicals. But with no claim of responsibility, and little information to go on, it's unclear who is behind the violence -- and why.

Prague, 31 March 2004 (RFE/RL) – During a shooting in Tashkent yesterday, Uzbek special forces battled armed fighters holed up in a suburban apartment block.

Some 23 people -- mostly suspects -- were killed by the time special forces ended the siege.

It's the latest incident in a spate of violence that has flared in Uzbekistan since 28 March, claiming at least 40 lives.

Authorities have blamed Hizb ut-Tahrir, an Islamic group seeking the creation of a caliphate spanning all of Central Asia. Officials in Tashkent claim the group is working in concert with Islamic militants and with help from extremists abroad.

Whoever was behind the attacks, observers say authorities are likely to crack down further on religious and opposition groups.
Uzbek Foreign Minister Sadyk Safayev yesterday called the attacks an attempt to undermine the U.S.-led coalition against terrorism, of which Uzbekistan is a member.

"Today we can say that there were attempts to destroy the international antiterrorist coalition. The targets were not chosen by chance. We see a direct connection between the ideology of Hizb ut-Tahrir, other extremist ideologies, and terrorism," Safayev said.

The prosecutor-general today was quoted as saying 30 suspects have been arrested in connection with the violence.

But with still no claim of responsibility, and little information from officials, it's a guessing game of who was behind the attacks.

Svante Cornell is an expert on Central Asia at Sweden's Uppsala University. "The reigning assumption is that this is a work done by the most prevalent armed opposition to the government, which is the Islamic extremists,” he says. “[It could be] in the form of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan [IMU], which has a known track record for armed uprising. It could be linked to international terrorism with Al-Qaeda -- which does not exclude the IMU, which was tightly linked to Al-Qaeda. And a third version is that it's a splinter group of Hizb ut-Tahrir, which is a self-avowed peaceful grouping but which has been showing signs of not being as united in Central Asia as in other parts of the world," Cornell said.

Hizb ut-Tahrir has no known ties to violent activities. Observers say the group's literature does not renounce violence in armed struggles, already under way, in which it views Muslims as victims of persecution -- as in Chechnya or Kashmir. But members reject the use of violence to achieve their own aim of establishing the caliphate.

Hizb ut-Tahir, which has its base in Western Europe, has been banned in Germany for disseminating what was deemed anti-Semitic and anti-Israeli propaganda. Although the group has never been officially banned in Uzbekistan, it is not a registered group, and therefore operates illegally, and with considerable secrecy.

Critics say blaming the group suits the political agenda of President Islam Karimov and his repression of religious freedoms.

There was a fresh reminder of that yesterday, in a new report by the New York-based Human Rights Watch. It says the government has arrested and tortured thousands of Muslims who practice their faith outside strict state controls -- including members of Hizb ut-Tahrir.

Tamara Makarenko is a research fellow at Scotland's Center for the Study of Terrorism. She says, "The Uzbek government has been trying very hard to demonize Hizb ut-Tahrir. So if they can provide evidence or say that they have evidence that points to Hizb ut-Tahrir, then it would justify every single action that they've perpetrated against Hizb ut-Tahrir members."

Analysts say there is a possibility that some on the fringe of Hizb ut-Tahrir have become disenchanted and radicalized.

But even such observers are skeptical of the government's claim of links between Hizb ut-Tahrir and the unabashedly militant IMU.

The IMU was set up with the goal of overthrowing Karimov's government and is listed by the U.S. State Department as a terrorist organization. It set up training camps in Afghanistan and carried out armed raids into Uzbekistan in the late 1990s. Authorities accused the group of being behind a series of bombings in Tashkent in 1999.

The IMU lost a lot of its military manpower in the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan. But some -- like Aleksei Malashenko of the Carnegie Center in Moscow -- say remnants may be behind the recent violence.

"I don't think it was Hizb ut-Tahrir -- they have other slogans, other principles, and they're never acted like this before. It's probably the homegrown IMU or an analogous organization. Another thing is, you can't look at these attacks outside the context of what is happening in general in the Islamic political landscape. Those governments that are supporting the U.S. -- and Uzbekistan supports them -- are under threat. What happened recently in Madrid shows that. So it's a double strike -- unfortunately, probably not the last such strike -- and it shows that governments that are involved in some way in the antiterror coalition are, from the point of view of terrorists, enemies of Islam and legitimate targets of any actions," Malashenko said.

Uzbekistan has cooperated with the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan, in part by opening its Khanabad air base to coalition troops. But some observers dispute the violence has anything to do with Uzbekistan's support of the United States in its war on terror.

Frederick Starr heads the Central Asia Caucasus Institute at Johns Hopkins University in the United States. He notes that the targets in the recent violence have been mainly police -- not the army, president's office, or other government institutions. And he notes that at least one suicide bomber is said to have been a woman.

"What women might have reason to be concerned or hostile? A possibility there -- again, it's only a hypothesis -- is families of those who have been convicted and incarcerated for religious extremism. This would be a consistent activity and again, we don't know, but it seems entirely possible. I don't think the hypothesis that this is family members carrying out acts of revenge against the police is incompatible with the notion that this is centrally organized, which is evident, or that it has connections abroad, which is more than likely," Starr said.

The targeting of police also raises another possibility -- that the attacks were prompted by widespread anger at police corruption and brutality.

Confusion about the attacks has been heightened by the fact that the Uzbek government has been largely silent regarding the violence. Last night's state-run television news opened with details of a meeting between Karimov and former Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus -- not the three days of local violence.

Whoever was behind the attacks, observers say authorities are likely to crack down further on religious and opposition groups.

Annette Bohr, a Central Asia expert at Cambridge University, says, "It will have a definite impact on the security situation in Uzbekistan in particular, and in all of Central Asia, since President Karimov's actions -- in particular, repressive measures -- do have a great impact on neighboring countries. I think it's clear he will attempt to crack down even more, which will ultimately lead to a greater backlash, so it's foreseeable that these kinds of attacks and counterattacks will continue for a long time to come."

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