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Kyrgyzstan Blames Militants For Blast


Blast In Bishkek
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WATCH: The blast damaged a court building where the trial of senior officials close to ousted President Kurmanbek Bakiev is taking place. (RFE/RL video)

At least three people --two police officers and a nurse -- have been wounded in Bishkek in an explosion Kyrgyz authorities are blaming on militants possibly trained in foreign terrorist camps.

The blast occurred outside the Kyrgyz capital's largest sports stadium, which has been chosen as the venue of a high-profile trial against former President Kurmanbek Bakiev and his aides.

The former top officials stand accused of using violence against protests that toppled Bakiev's government in April.

Today's explosion comes just days ahead of a visit to Bishkek by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

It also came a day after security forces clashed with militants in the volatile southern city of Osh and officials announced the discovery last week of explosives and the arrest of nine people said to have been planning terrorist attacks across the country.

'Links In A Chain'

Marat Imankulov, the head of the country's Security Council, told reporters today that the three incidents were all connected.

"The event on November 22 when Interior Ministry officers confiscated explosive material and handmade explosive devices from suspects in Bishkek, and yesterday's special operation by security forces in Osh against those with suspected connections to terrorist organizations, and today's explosion outside the sports stadium are all links of the same chain," Imankulov said.

Imankulov said those behind all three incidents might have undergone training in terrorist camps run by Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Imankulov told reporters an ordinary person without specific training wouldn't have been able to make the kinds of explosive devices that were seized from the suspects last week.

"They were made by specialists who were possibly trained in special terrorist camps," he said.

Imankulov also said today's blast in Bishkek was aimed at interrupting the ongoing trial of the former top officials and reversing democratic changes in the country.

Southern Tensions

Four suspected militants were killed during the operation in Osh, which according to Imankulov took place near the house of a local imam, Farkhat Nurmatov.

Kyrgyz authorities say they have been conducting special operations since last month against what they call underground terrorist elements in Bishkek and the southern Osh province.

The latest unrest comes five months after vicious ethnic clashes between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks left 400 dead in the country's south. But most observers are reluctant to tie the June violence to the presence of Islamist groups.

Kuban Abdymen, the editor of the Z-Press news website, suggests the militants involved in the clash in Osh were part of a group -- affiliated with the IMU or other extremist organizations -- that retreated from Kyrgyzstan as a result of the June events, and have returned only recently.

"Now they've returned and are preparing for jihad," Abdymen says. "They've come from abroad, but it's hard to say from where. Most likely from countries like Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the like."

There's been no confirmed IMU involvement in any major incident in Kyrgyzstan in recent years.

In 1999 and 2000 the banned group conducted several kidnapping operations in southern Kyrgyzstan, seizing Kyrgyz as well as Japanese and U.S. citizens in different raids in Osh and Batken. All hostages were eventually released unharmed.

Paul Quinn-Judge, the Central Asia director of the International Crisis Group, a prominent Brussels-based think tank, says the IMU's activities in Kyrgyzstan have been "low-key," and dismisses government theories the IMU played a role in the June violence.

The IMU has a definite presence in southern Kyrgyzstan, he says, but overall, the group's focus remains on creating a Shari'a state in Afghanistan.

"They have been coming in [to Kyrgyzstan], almost certainly from Tajikistan, moving along the border to Osh and then Jalal-Abad. There have been some firefights, there have been a number of arrests of people who have been accused of IMU operatives; nothing large," Quinn-Judge says. "Up until now at least, Central Asia has been a sideshow, if not an afterthought for the IMU."

Growing Resentment

But that may change, as the situation in Kyrgyzstan -- an impoverished country that hosts both U.S. and Russian military bases -- remains volatile.

Bakiev's government collapsed amid public protests in April, followed two months later by the ethnic clashes in Osh and other southern provinces.

Since then, Uzbeks in the south have complained that they are the target of continued hostility, saying local courts are prosecuting far more Uzbeks than Kyrgyz for crimes committed during the June violence.

Quinn-Judge says that climate of instability may allow the IMU and other militant groups to gain strength. Many of the Uzbeks in southern Kyrgyzstan are middle class and largely secular -- people, he says, who until now "don't seem to have contributed very much in the way of IMU membership."

But that could eventually change if resentment continues to build -- and if, for example, the latest violence leads to a fresh wave of arrests among Kyrgyzstan's Uzbeks:

"It's hard to imagine the IMU would hope to get a lot of members very quickly," Quinn-Judge says. "On the other hand, if the mayor of Osh and other government officials continue to tolerate repression of Uzbeks, Uzbeks from all sorts of backgrounds may well start to join armed movements."

The country's prolonged power vacuum is contributing to the unrest. Although an interim government led by reformist Roza Otunbaeva has been in place since Bakiev's ouster, Kyrgyzstan is now attempting a transition to become the first parliamentary democracy in Central Asia, a region notorious for its autocratic presidents.

The country's October 10 elections resulted in five parties winning seats in parliament, but failed to produce a clear winner, prompting weeks of intense negotiations -- and, critics say, leaving matters like ethnic reconciliation and security threats poorly managed.

Today's blast came as three parties were poised to sign a coalition agreement.

Bishkek-based security expert Alisher Abdumomunov accused "forces both outside and inside the country" who are interested in destabilizing Kyrgyzstan.

Abdumomunov told RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service "the recent events show that Kyrgyzstan is still struggling" to defend itself from enemies of Kyrgyzstan's democracy, statehood, and stabilization.

Ulan Eshmatov of RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service contributed to this report