PRAGUE, March 27, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- What happened that day was sudden and bloody.
One day after police allegedly beat to death a 74-year-old man in Tashkent's Chorsu bazaar on March 28, bombs exploded at a children's store and at a bus stop near the bazaar. Apparently set off by two women, they were the first suicide-bomber attacks in the region. Fifteen people died, most of them police. Nine others were killed in the Bukhara blast a day earlier.
Days Of Fighting
The explosions in Chorsu began 12 hours of mayhem that continued with assaults on police and an explosion at a bomb-making hideaway on March 30; police and army troops also clashed with attackers in Tashkent and its suburbs. At least 23 more people were killed in addition to the 24 from the bomb blasts in Chorsu and Bukhara. Authorities reported that 33 of the 47 total killed were attackers.
It was the first major violence in Tashkent since February 16, 1999, when a string of bombings killed 16 people. Uzbek authorities blamed the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) for what they claimed was an attempt to assassinate Uzbek President Islam Karimov.
In spring 2004, the official reaction was similar. "We have enough information today that proves that this [organization, the IMU,] is linked to Hizb ut-Tahrir and the Wahhabis -- I mean the movement [a reporter] just referred to as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan," said Prosecutor-General Rashid Qodirov.
Blaming The IMU
Thus, Qodirov pointed a finger at those the Uzbek government had long considered its enemy. Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT) and the IMU have a common goal -- to overthrow the current Uzbek regime and create an Islamic state that would span across Central Asia.
However, HT claims its means are peaceful whereas the IMU is a militant radical group that has been on the U.S. State Department's list of terrorist organizations since 2000. Qodirov also came up with a new bugaboo -- Jamo'at. He said it was an extremist offspring of HT. The latter denied any involvement in the blasts.
A week later, Uzbek authorities linked the explosions with international terrorism. "Some of the detained individuals have testified that they were trained in terrorist camps by Arab instructors who had previously trained Al-Qaeda militants," Qodirov said.
Tashkent was a key U.S. ally in the war on terror at the time. Then Uzbek Foreign Minister Sodiq Safoev said the attacks were an attempt to undermine the U.S.-led coalition against terrorism.
However, it appeared hard for Uzbek authorities to convince the international community and the local population that the attacks had international terrorist roots.
The bombings in Uzbekistan differed from those in other countries: while attacks linked to Al-Qaeda often strike Western targets, the Uzbek assailants aimed at neither foreigners nor peaceful civilians. Police -- who are both hated and feared in the country -- seemed to be their target: 10 of them died in the Chorsu attacks.
While the world questioned Al-Qaeda's possible involvement in the Uzbek blasts, human-rights watchdogs and media were reporting about the Uzbek authorities' repression against dissent and its use of torture, which was described by the UN as "systematic" in the country's prisons.
"The Economist" wrote on April 2, 2004, that alleging an Al-Qaeda connection was "convenient for the repressive Uzbekistan regime. It would divert attention from the fact that it has given Uzbekistan's impoverished population plenty of reasons to turn violent. It could also help generate sympathy for Mr. Karimov's regime, despite its appalling record on human rights and poor political and economic reform."
Meanwhile, among ordinary Uzbeks, negative feelings against the government sharpened and discontent grew.
Kamron Aliev, a Tashkent-based independent political analyst, tells RFE/RL that the prevailing public opinion was that the attacks were aimed at inflicting damage on the police.
"A common opinion among the people was that Uzbekistan's law-enforcement agencies don't do their jobs," Aliev said.
"Despite having enormous authority, getting huge funds, and being very numerous -- extremely numerous -- law officers don't do what they ought to. Some people, like democrats (opposition members) and human-rights activists, have said that the [interior] minister and [security service chief] should resign -- but no one listened to [those calls]."
Distrust Of The Police
In a country with widespread human-rights abuses and some 5,000 political and religious prisoners, according to the U.S. State Department's 2005 Human Rights Report, everyone has a relative, a neighbor, or otherwise knows someone in jail.
And, for most ordinary Uzbeks, the police stand for bribery, intimidation, abuse, and brutality.Therefore, after the blasts, which also led to the mass arrests and trials of dozens of people, many Uzbeks identified more with the assailants than with law-enforcement agencies. The police were perceived as a common enemy.
The Stratfor website commented on April 13, 2004, that in Uzbekistan, "as the government clampdown continues, the population will become both more supportive of indigenous militants and more likely to spawn them."
On July 30, three suicide bombers attacked the U.S. Embassy, the Israeli Embassy, and the Prosecutor-General's Office in Tashkent. Four police died in the blasts that came four days after Uzbekistan put 15 suspects on trial for involvement in the spring 2004 attacks.
Then Came Andijon
But it took one more year before western governments took a critical stance of the Uzbek authorities' policies when hundreds of protesters were killed in the eastern city of Andijon.
Craig Murray is a former British ambassador to Tashkent and a vocal critic of the Karimov regime.
"In 1999, these bombs in Tashkent, which killed a lot of people, at the time it resulted in a surge of popular support for Karimov, and ordinary Uzbek people actually did believe this was an attack by Islamist terrorists," Murray said. "Now, no one believes these stories at all. No one any longer believes the 1999 bombings were Islamic attacks. And no one believes in government version of what happened in Andijon. So there has been a change."
The European Union imposed sanctions against Uzbekistan after Tashkent rejected calls from Brussels and Washington for an independent probe into the events in Andijon. Tashkent later evicted U.S. troops from its soil last year as it has reoriented its foreign policy more strongly towards Moscow and away from the critical countries of the West.