Bomb set off in central Uzbekistan

Friday, April 2, 2004

TASHKENT, Uzbekistan -- A woman detonated a bomb Thursday in central Uzbekistan, killing one person and critically injuring herself, and the government for the first time said al-Qaida was behind this week's attacks that left at least 44 dead, mostly alleged militants.

Ilya Pyagay, the Interior Ministry's deputy anti-terrorism chief, told The Associated Press that those behind the unrest, including some fugitives, were followers of the strict Wahhabi strain of Islam believed to have inspired Osama bin Laden.

"These are Wahhabis who belong to one of the branches of the international al-Qaida terror group," he said.

The Uzbek government often uses the Wahhabi label to tar anyone who worships outside state-run mosques, and Western diplomats and human rights activists say official repression could actually be to blame for the violence. The government also uses alleged Wahhabi affiliation to refer to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan -- a terror group linked to al-Qaida that Uzbek officials say has been wiped out in the country.

In the latest violence Thursday, police said a woman detonated the bomb in a two-story apartment building in the central Bukhara region. She was hospitalized in critical condition, according to a police duty officer who declined to give her name.

Police said a man was killed, but Russia's ITAR-Tass news agency reported the woman's daughter was killed.

The officer said the blast was linked to Sunday's explosion at an alleged bomb-making hideaway in the same area. ITAR-Tass said the woman's husband was killed there, citing a law enforcement source.

Meanwhile, police said a standoff ended early Thursday when a "lone bandit" blew himself up. Pyagay said there were no hostages, although police earlier had said several captives had been taken.

An Associated Press photographer saw a body being taken away Thursday as soldiers stood by, allowing only residents into the neighborhood.

Citing Interior Ministry sources, ITAR-Tass reported the man had threatened to blow himself up with his wife and a child, but that they were released after negotiations. Investigators believe he might have been trained in terrorist camps in Pakistan and Afghanistan, ITAR-Tass said.

All land border crossings into Uzbekistan have been closed, the Border Protection Committee said, including the already tightly controlled Friendship Bridge crossing into Afghanistan.

President Islam Karimov initially hinted the attacks and bombings since Sunday were connected to the extremist Islamic group Hizb ut-Tahrir, even though thousands of its members have been arrested. The group, which has no known link to terrorist violence, has denied involvement, and police said no suspects interrogated so far were members.

The number of Wahhabis in Central Asia is believed to be small, said Acacia Shields, Central Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch and author of a report on religious oppression in Uzbekistan.

She said the Uzbek regime has labeled as Wahhabi anyone who worships outside state-run mosques -- even those who simply study the Quran at home.

"The government is now, it appears, trying to conflate Saudi-style Wahhabism -- which has been linked to Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida -- with its own misuse of the term and thereby suggest peaceful Muslim dissidents in Uzbekistan are just like al-Qaida," Shields said.

The events also appeared to spark a deeper crackdown on independent Muslims.

Human Rights Watch confirmed six arrests in Tashkent and the surrounding region, and another two women and three children were detained overnight and released, said Allison Gill, the group's Uzbekistan researcher. She said none appeared linked to the violence.

"The volume of arrests just in the last 24 hours is high," she said. "It seems (authorities) are using this as a pretext to get people that they wanted anyway."

Analysts and local observers say the attacks likely aren't related to Tashkent's cooperation with the United States, which based troops in Uzbekistan shortly before the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan following the Sept. 11 attacks. The main targets of all attacks appears to have been police -- not Western institutions.

"The causes here in Uzbekistan are extreme repression and deepening poverty caused by the Karimov regime," said British Ambassador Craig Murray.

The Muslim Spiritual Board, the state-allied agency that runs the country's religious life, called imams from across the country to Tashkent to coordinate a unified line on the violence ahead of Friday prayers.

Imam Qotib Abdugafur Rozzaq, the official Islamic leader in Bukhara region, was quick to condemn Wahhabis.

"They are like communists, they want to spread their ideas all over the world. That's why they are called fundamentalists and fanatics," he said. "They sow death, terror and fear among peaceful people."

In the past, the Uzbeks have also labeled as "Wahhabis" the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, blamed for a 1999 Tashkent bombing that killed 16 people, said Ahmed Rashid, an expert on the region. "What they called Wahhabis in the past was always the IMU," he said.

The attacks that the government alleged were carried out by female suicide bombers aren't typical for extremist Wahhabis, Rashid said, noting women haven't been directly involved in al-Qaida attacks.

A Western diplomat in Tashkent said the IMU has devolved from a more military organization -- which carried out incursions across Central Asia from 1999-2001 -- to a cell-type structure since it lost hundreds of fighters in battles with U.S.-led forces in northern Afghanistan in 2001.

The State Department has also hinted that the IMU is behind the latest attacks, noting it was the only known dominant threat in the country.

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