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Uzbekistan: Bombing Suspect Denies Involvement

Prague, 5 May 1999 (RFE/RL) -- A series of high-profile court cases begins in Tashkent next week involving suspects in February's bombings in the Uzbek capital that killed 15 people and wounded 150 others.

The target, according to officials, was President Islam Karimov, who was only seconds away from arriving at the area where one of the bombs exploded.

The event shocked authorities, who have kept strict control over society since the country became independent in 1991. The bombings were followed by a widespread investigation and numerous arrests.

The suspects on trial are mainly from Islamic groups branded as extremist. Authorities say, though, that as important as these trials are, the masterminds of the bombing remain at large.

Karimov has accused two individuals of leading the assassination attempt. Both live outside the country and both have, so far, eluded capture.

One is Mohammed Solih, the leader of the banned Erk party. Solih has lived in Europe or Turkey for most of the time that Uzbekistan has been an independent country. Solih, in a recent interview with RFE/RL, denied any involvement in the blasts.

The other man accused by Karimov is Takhir Yuldash, the leader of Uzbekistan's Islamic Movement, who according to Uzbek authorities is a friend of Afghan and Chechen warlords and would have the technical expertise to set off the bombs. Uzbek officials regard Yuldash as a classic example of an Islamic extremist.

Yuldash, though, says he's innocent of masterminding the bombing. From a remote location, he talked to RFE/RL's Uzbek service by telephone last week to give his version of events.

He says the repression of Karimov's government is responsible for creating conditions in which people feel it necessary to resort to violence. He also says he's not working with Solih.

"The claims that this act was organized by Mohammed Solih and the leader of Uzbekistan's Islamic Movement are a big lie because these two movements cannot come closer to each other. The name of the first is "democratic" and the second "Islamic." Of course, there are many people who were put in jails in connection with these lies."

Yuldash did not indicate where he was calling from when he contacted RFE/RL, but he is believed to be in northern Afghanistan.

He says he knows that the Uzbek government has named him as a primary suspect in the bombings and also that Karimov has asked Interpol to capture him and Solih.

He also knows that the Uzbek government has linked him with Islamic groups such as Afghanistans Taliban movement.

Yuldash says, though, his presence in Afghanistan does not mean he has a strong connection with the Taliban. He says Uzbekistans Islamic Movement left the country and set up operations in Afghanistan before the Taliban arrived in 1994. He says his group cooperates with many Afghan groups.

Yuldash admits his group has supporters in Uzbekistan, but he says there's nothing unusual about that. He says the home base of his movement, the Fergana Valley, has had deep Islamic roots for many years, since before the Russians appeared more than 100 years ago. He says these roots survived the Soviet period.

Yuldash says his group has no intention, at present, of using violence to further its goals.

"Of course, sitting here, I have no right to say who is responsible for [the February bombings]. But Uzbekistan's Islamic Movement, until now, has not declared war or taken up arms against the leaders of the regime. We have stated that we believe there is still a chance, there is still hope for toppling this regime by peaceful means."

Yuldash says Islamic Shari'a law needs to be followed in Uzbekistan -- something the government strongly opposes.

(Yakub Turan and Bill Hasanov also contributed to this feature.)