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Uzbekistan: Bombing Allegations Raise Tensions With Turkey

By Gokalp Bayramli

Since several bombs exploded in the Uzbek capital, Tashkent, earlier this year, Uzbek authorities have focused considerable energy on finding those responsible. The search took an unexpected turn in May, when the authorities accused Turkey of having a role. Ankara has played down the resulting strains, but they are nonetheless apparent. Our correspondent in Turkey looks at the dispute

Ankara, Turkey; 8 July 1999 (RFE/RL) -- On February 16 of this year, a series of bombs exploded in Uzbekistan's capital, Tashkent, leaving 16 people dead and more than 100 others injured. It also shook a country that had been considered relatively safe from such acts of violence.

Uzbek authorities quickly said they believed the bombings were an attempt on the life of President Islam Karimov. And indeed Karimov was driving to a meeting at the government building in the middle of the city when one of the bombs detonated in front of the structure, causing significant damage. Karimov was unhurt.

The government quickly blamed the blasts on Islamic extremist groups. Late last month, 22 people were convicted of involvement, with six receiving death sentences.

The story of the bombings has spread from Uzbekistan itself to include many other nations. Suspects apprehended in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Russia, Ukraine and Turkey were extradited to Uzbekistan for trial.

The significance of the Turkish connection to the events did not end there. Uzbek authorities criticized Ankara, saying that Turkey moved too slowly in extraditing one suspect, Rustem Mametkulov.

Karimov then accused Turkey of undermining the secular system in Uzbekistan and of trying to overthrow his government. Specific steps have further raised tensions. Uzbek students were called back from Turkey. Turkish schools were shut down in Uzbekistan. In response, the Turkish ambassador in Tashkent returned to Ankara.

In the course of the trial, suggestions about a Turkish connection to the bombings were taken a step further. Uzbek state television showed the testimonies of one of the suspects in which the suspect stated that financial aid for the plotters came from Necmettin Erbakan, a former Turkish prime minister and leader of the now outlawed Islamist Welfare Party.

Erbakan has few friends in the current Turkish government and even fewer friends in the country's powerful military. But the government in Ankara has not made clear how seriously it takes claims of his involvement in the Tashkent bombings.

However, Turkish prosecutors are looking into the matter. They are set to submit a formal request soon to the Uzbek government, asking for videotapes, information and documents related to the accusations.

Earlier this week, Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit called the ambassador of Uzbekistan to his office in Ankara. Ecevit later declared to the press that Turkey is interested in again improving its ties with Uzbekistan. But his comments made clear that tensions persist.

"There are some developments in the [Uzbek] attitude toward Turkey that sadden us. This comes from a number of misunderstandings concerning Turkey. We are giving great importance to our relationship with Uzbekistan in every field. Anyone who thinks about harming Uzbekistan or putting its internal politics into trouble, won't get even the slightest aid from Turkey. I delivered my thoughts in this matter to the ambassador with the request to forward them to the President of Uzbekistan. Further, I explained the great importance we give to Uzbekistan in every area. I am sure that we can overcome this little discord quickly."

The program shown on Uzbek television also claimed that Mohammed Solih -- the leader-in-exile of the banned Uzbek political party Erk -- was involved in the bombings. Solih had earlier been given asylum in Turkey. But after pressure from the Uzbek government, Turkey expelled him.

Enver Altayli is a Turkish-born ethnic Uzbek and an entrepreneur. In the early 1990s, he served as an advisor to Karimov, but that role ended because of his connections with Solih and the Erk Party.

Altayli, now residing in Turkey, recently gave his view of the accusations in an interview on Turkish television. According to him, Uzbek President Karimov is using the bombing incident to extinguish legitimate political opposition inside Uzbekistan.

Asked whether he believed the allegations against Erbakan, Altayli stressed that the testimonies broadcast on Uzbek television were not the product of a fair legal procedure and thus were not convincing, he answered:

"Here it is said that Erbakan had given [money] and Muhammed Solih had taken it. Erbakan is alive and Muhammed Solih is alive. They should be asked. And it should be acted upon according to their answers. There is no such thing as free justice in Uzbekistan. A couple of people have been extradited from Turkey to Uzbekistan. One speaks of the cellars of Uzbekistan's KGB. They have instruments of torture that were not available even in medieval times. With this torture, you can get any testimony you want. Because of this, I am not the one to answer such a question. If Erbakan denies that he has given money and if Muhammed Solih denies that he has taken it, then there is no reason to continue this debate."

It seems unlikely that Uzbek authorities would agree. It remains to be seen how long and how hard Tashkent is prepared to press Ankara to address their concerns about Erbakan and the February bombings.