Depending on Uzbekistan's official sources for information about what is happening in the country has always presented a challenge. Uzbek officials and state media have a predictable habit of magnifying the positive and giving the negative cursory treatment, if the latter is mentioned at all. Often one is left with more questions than answers.
Such sources have provided information on two security incidents of late that raise a number of questions.
The most recent was the explosion in downtown Tashkent on September 4. The blast happened at a bus stop in the "old town" area of the Uzbek capital, across the street from a mosque at 1:30 in the afternoon, just after Friday Prayers.
RFE/RL's Uzbek Service, known locally as Ozodlik, heard about the explosion shortly after it happened and contacted police in Tashkent. The police said a homemade bomb had exploded, no one was injured, and police were searching for a man witnesses had seen leaving something by the bus stop and quickly departing the area.
Later in the day, Uzbek officials came forward with the official version. Yes, a bomb did explode in the middle of the day, in the middle of the city, but it was a security exercise.
The Uzbek news site Gazeta.uz provided a statement from the Interior Ministry that same day. The ministry's press service said, "At 1332 hours, a mock terrorist set off a homemade explosive at a bus stop near a mosque. Then, following an 'alarm' command, the city police forces were put on alert and the incident area was cordoned off, as prescribed by intradepartmental instructions."
The statement continued, "The training scenario was designed to make the exercise as close to a real situation as possible, and an important part was to test the vigilance and responsiveness of other rapid response services of Tashkent, specifically firefighters, the Emergency Ministry and the ambulance service."
None of the emergency services responding to the "alarm" knew it was a drill. The public, of course, did not know either.
While the Interior Ministry's statement provided those details about the exercise, there was no mention of precautions taken to ensure public safety during this fake bombing. There were real bombings in Tashkent in February 1999 and in late March-early April 2004 and people were killed and wounded.
Also, there was no mention of how much explosive was used in the homemade bomb or how it was detonated.
It seems the exercise was a success, since they caught the "terrorist" in a neighboring district 15 minutes after the explosion.
'Women With Suicide Belts'
The other recent incident involves two women in the Rishtan district of Uzbekistan's eastern Ferghana Province. It started on August 16 after Ozodlik's sources in Uzbek law enforcement agencies said two women had been seen wearing suicide belts and in possession of a pistol with a silencer and hand grenade.
Authorities reportedly learned of the weapons and explosives from the testimony of residents in two separate villages of the district. One woman in the village of Kalaynov said the two armed women broke into her house but fled when the homeowner started screaming. Later the two suspects were said to have broken into another woman's home in the village of Oq Yar and robbed the homeowner.
Based on this, authorities initiated a security sweep of the district that involved some 200 policemen. They described the women as being about 35 years old and one "looked Turkish" while the other was Uzbek. Facial composites of the two were posted around the area and the public was urged to contact authorities immediately if anyone saw the women.
After searching for some time without any result, police concluded the two had fled across the border into Kyrgyzstan.
The two women not only vanished from Uzbekistan, they vanished from the news. There have not been any follow-up reports about Uzbek authorities calling on Kyrgyzstan's law-enforcement agencies to seek out and apprehend these two women. There also have not been reports of any continuing search or leads in the case, or of where the two women might have come from or what their motives might have been.
When the episode with the two vanishing women started, I spoke with my colleagues in Ozodlik and a couple of them questioned whether there really were two women with suicide belts. The Ferghana Valley is densely populated, but on the village level everyone knows everyone else in the area. Strangers would be noticed. And eluding Uzbek security forces when they are actively hunting someone is no easy feat.
Based on reporting by Ozodlik with contributions from Farruh Yusupov of Ozodlik