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Uzbekistan: Government Cracks Down On Opposition

In the year since bombs went off in and near Uzbek government buildings killing 16 people, the Uzbek government has cracked down on the opposition, drawing little distinction between the political opposition and the armed insurgents. RFE/RL's Bruce Pannier reports that even in the wake of the crackdown, security in Uzbekistan has never been a greater concern.

Prague, 16 February 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Last year, as Uzbekistan's cabinet of ministers was waiting for the president to arrive for a meeting, shooting broke out on the main square (Mustakillik Maidoni). Bombs went off in buildings on the square, in the Interior Ministry and near the airport.

President Islam Karimov's car was approaching the government building when the explosions went off, and the government says the incident was an attempt on the president's life.

Bahodyr Tuleganov was driving in his car that morning and unluckily came upon two of the fleeing terrorists when he stopped at an intersection in downtown Tashkent.

"One of them opened the door of his car, pointed his machine gun at me, and told me to get out and leave the keys."

The terrorists escaped in Tuleganov's car.

President Karimov's car was diverted by an Interior Ministry officer, and the president escaped injury. Others were less fortunate. Sixteen people died in the blasts and well over 100 were injured.

Karimov's authoritarian rule had given him many enemies, so there were a number of potential suspects. But investigators focused their efforts on Islamic extremists, who had been blamed for murders in eastern Uzbekistan in late 1997. The campaign against them had led to the closing of hundreds of mosques and possibly thousands of arrests.

Those arrests started again in the wake of the 1999 Tashkent bombings. Last summer dozens of people were convicted of participation in the bombings, and some have already been executed.

Outside observers viewed those trials as unfair. Uzbek authorities produced videotaped confessions that looked scripted. The suspects implicated the Uzbek government's main opponents, well-known opposition figures such as Mohammed Solih, as well as armed insurgents such as Juma Namangani and Takhir Yuldash.

Bahrom Abdullayev was an emir in an armed opposition group known as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. He was one of those convicted and sentenced to death for helping plan the bombings. During his trial last summer, he said that at one meeting in Afghanistan, people from other countries were present to begin planning the act of terrorism.

"In Kabul we met Takhir Yuldash and there were many guests from other countries -- Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Turkey. From these countries famous religious scholars came. The meeting was organized by Takhir Yuldash. There were also guests from the United States and Germany."

Solih, head of the Erk Democratic Party, was also based outside of Uzbekistan. But he has said many times he had nothing to do with the terrorist act in Tashkent, and except for dubious confessions of suspects implicating him, there is little evidence to prove otherwise.

Yusup Rozimurad, a high-ranking member of Erk, spoke with RFE/RL shortly after the bombings and said his party was not involved in the bombings. "This sort of terror and serious violations cannot be justified either in Uzbekistan or anywhere else in the world. The Erk Party is determined to come to power by political means and categorically rejects any use of violence." Rozimurad was later arrested and sentenced to 14 years in prison. Namangani and Yuldash are an entirely different story -- they are members of an armed insurgent group that aims to overthrow the Uzbek government. An armed group that crossed from Tajikistan into Kyrgyzstan and took hostages last August was made up mostly of Uzbeks loyal to Namangani. Yuldash said he was part of the group, which called itself the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.

The group held hostages in Kyrgyzstan for weeks, saying it wanted passage to Uzbekistan so it could overthrow the government. The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan also demanded the release of 50,000 people from Uzbek prisons. The Kyrgyz government refused to let the militants pass, and nearly three months of hide-and-seek battles in the mountains and farmlands ensued. Thousands of Kyrgyz villagers were displaced, and the border between southern Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan became an armed camp, guarded by customs officials, border guards, Interior Ministry troops and regular army soldiers.

Eventually the onset of winter, and not military action, led the Uzbek militants to return to Tajikistan. But they struck again before the end of the year. In mid-November a small group hit at the Uzbek mountain village of Yangiabad, less than two hours' drive from Tashkent. They were quickly eliminated by the thousands of troops sent to the area, but the problem had returned home.

Since November, Uzbekistan has held elections to parliament and the presidency. Five political parties competed in elections to parliament on December 5 -- but all the parties were pro-government, and observers pronounced the election not democratic.

The presidential election was even less open. President Karimov's sole opponent in the race was a virtual unknown who did not campaign, and even he said he voted for the incumbent.

The result of the last year is that Uzbekistan, once fiercely independent in its views of cooperation within the Commonwealth of Independent States, is now turning to Moscow as the only reliable bulwark against terrorism.

President Karimov once opposed Russian influence in Central Asia, but he is now saying that the Islamic militants will be beaten back with Moscow's help. Karimov has few others to turn to for help, as he has alienated his neighbors over the issue. He ridiculed Kyrgyzstan's leadership for not killing all the militants when they invaded during the summer. And he criticized Tajikistan's leadership for not chasing the militants from their bases in Tajikistan's eastern mountains.

Just over a year ago, Uzbekistan's leadership was saying that better times lay ahead. Those times did not come last year.

(Yakub Turan, Furkatbeg Yakvalkhodjaev, Zamira Echanova and Azizullo Arral contributed to this report.)