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Uzbekistan: Blasts Spark Speculation Of Threat From Militants

Prague, 12 March 1999 (RFE/RL) -- More than three weeks after several bombs exploded in Tashkent, accusations continue to be made -- both by Uzbek authorities and the state media -- as to who was behind the fatal blasts.

At least 13 people were killed and another 100 injured when a series of car bombs exploded near government buildings in the capital on February 16.

The exiled leader of Uzbekistan's Erk Party (Mohammed Solih) -- one of the country's major opposition groups -- is now being linked by state television and newspapers to the bombings. He denies any involvement. Previously, Uzbek President Islam Karimov claimed the attack was an assassination attempt against him by Islamic extremists supported from abroad, including groups under the Hezbollah (Party of God) and Hizbi-Tahrir-Al-Islomiy (Party of Islamic Freedom) umbrellas.

Paul Wilkinson -- a professor at the Center on Terrorism and Political Violence at Saint Andrew's University in Edinburgh, Scotland -- is an expert on militant Islamic groups.

In a recent interview with RFE/RL's Uzbek service, Wilkinson said groups united under the name Hezbollah are active in the Middle East but also have supporters in places such as Latin America and the United States. These groups look to Iran as the source of their inspiration. Wilkinson says the goal of Hezbollah groups is to create Islamic states based on the Iranian model.

"Their ideas are similar. They want to create Iranian-style Islamic republics in the various countries. They want to try to purge their areas of what they would regard as non-Islamic or anti-Islamic influences. As you would imagine, they are strongly anti-western."

Wilkinson says groups operating under the Hizbi-Tahrir-Al-Islomiy umbrella have similar objectives as Hezbollah.

"They are similar organizations in so far as they are working in alliance with Iran and with other pro-Iranian groups. They have a similar kind of agenda: very fiercely Islamist, wanting to return -- as they would see it -- to the pure Islamic law of the Shari'a."

Wilkinson says that both Hezbollah and Hizbi-Tahrir-Al-Islomiy have recently increased their efforts to expand their influence in Central Asia. He says it is quite likely these groups are involved in activities directed at undermining the authorities in Central Asia, where they do not enjoy a dominant position.

Wilkinson says these Islamic groups are not happy with the pragmatic policies of many Central Asian states and their unwillingness to follow the way of Iranian revolutionary Islamism. Wilkinson says that -- in order to achieve their goals and spread their message in Central Asia -- these groups are using a combination of terrorist acts and propaganda.

"They use a combination of violence and intimidation when they feel that that is going to serve their purposes and weaken their opponents, and both religious and political propaganda because they have a very strong message of religious militancy, as well." Wilkinson explains that to spread their message, Islamic groups often smuggle audiocassettes, videotapes and printed information reflecting their ideology. Also, he said, they enlist the aid of people in mosques and clergy who tend to be sympathetic to their ideas.

Wilkinson thinks it is feasible that groups like Hezbollah and Hizbi-Tahrir-Al-Islomiy could be behind the Tashkent bomb explosions, since these groups are well-funded and well-trained.

Wilkinson cautions, however, that Islamic extremist groups operating in Central Asia are small in number and that the significance of these groups to the politics of Central Asia and their threat to the stability of these states should not be exaggerated.

Wilkinson says the problem of Islamic militancy can be solved without serious turbulence or conflict provided authorities take firm steps under the rule of law to protect people from the threat of terrorism.