Prague, 16 February 1999 (RFE/RL) - A series of bomb explosions in the Uzbek capital, Tashkent, today left several people dead and caused damage to buildings. Uzbek authorities are blaming the bombings on terrorists who they say were attempting to kill the country's president, Islam Karimov.
The explosions began at just after 1100 local time (0700 Prague time). Four bombs reportedly went off within a 1.5 kilometer radius of one another -- two in the Interior Ministry building, one outside the 20-story National Bank building and another on Mustakklik Maidoni (Independence Square) where the government building is situated and where a meeting of the council of ministers, with Karimov in attendance, was scheduled for 1100.
Another bomb went off some 45 minutes later outside the center of the city near the airport, reportedly leveling a block of flats. There are reports of heavily damaged buildings and burned out cars from all the sites.
Interfax quotes the Uzbek Interior Minister, Zakir Almatov, as saying that nine people died in the blasts and 15 others were seriously injured. But news reports indicated the toll would likely increase.
There are reports that Karimov was en route to the meeting and nearing the government building when shooting began in the area of the square. The firing began when a car ran through barricades around the square and police used their weapons in an attempt to stop the vehicle. The occupant or occupants of that car are being called "suicide bombers." They either exploded a device inside their car or it went off during the shooting. There is no official comment on the fate of those who had been in the vehicle.
The bombs at the Interior Ministry and National Bank building went off a few minutes later.
The aim of those behind the bombings, according to Uzbek television, radio and the Uzbek president himself, appears to be killing Karimov.
"The aim is to eliminate the president, to destroy the peace of our people and if necessary to intimidate the people and bring panic to their hearts," Karimov told reporters outside the government building.
Tashkent radio, two hours after the last bomb exploded, also called the attack "an evil attempt on the life of our president" perpetrated by what it called "extremist forces who hate our country's independence."
The bombings appeared to have been well-coordinated and well-planned. Their scope suggests that though he was a possible target, killing Karimov was not the only aim. The bomb which went off near the airport was not on Karimov's route from his home to the government building.
Speculation immediately turned to possible motives for the attacks, which are highly unusual for Tashkent.
Uzbekistan began a crackdown against Islamist groups the government perceived as a threat at the end of 1997. That campaign continues. But the usual tactics of these groups have involved isolated assassinations rather than attacks like those of this morning.
Speculation may also center on the fact that Uzbekistan publicly declared its intention to pull out of the Commonwealth of Independent States' (CIS) Collective Security Treaty two weeks ago. That decision did not please some in Moscow and the visit of a Russian delegation led by Federation Council chairman Yegor Stroyev to Tashkent last week failed to convince Karimov to change his mind.
Uzbekistan also has strained relations with its neighbor Tajikistan after the latter accused the Uzbek government of supporting a group of rebels who attempted to seize control over areas in northern Tajikistan last November.
Karimov later today appeared on national television appealing for citizens to remain calm and promising to punish those responsible for the bombings.
"Our strength is sufficient, if needed. We trust in our chosen path and will continue to work for this. By such means no power can divert us from this path," said the president.
Two people have already been arrested at the city's airport after today's events and there are likely to be reports of numerous arrests in the days to come.