Wave of suspected terrorism hits U.S. ally in Asia

At least 18 dead in blasts and clashes in Uzbekistan

March 30, 2004|By David Holley | David Holley,LOS ANGELES TIMES

MOSCOW - A series of explosions and clashes between suspected terrorists and police left at least 18 people dead and dozens wounded in Uzbekistan, a U.S. ally in the fight against terrorism, authorities said yesterday.

Two blasts yesterday in the capital, Tashkent, killed a suicide bomber and two victims, and an explosion Sunday night in the Bukhara region took nine lives, Uzbek Interior Ministry spokesman Aziz Ernazarov said. Six police officers also were killed Sunday night in a clash with gunmen believed to be terrorists, he said.

The wave of blasts hit less than three weeks after devastating terrorist attacks in Spain, a main backer of the U.S.-led war in Iraq. The Central Asian nation of Uzbekistan sits on Afghanistan's northern border and has had difficult relations with Islamic militants for years.

Some reports indicated that those killed in the Bukhara region, an ancient Silk Road outpost about 300 miles southwest of the capital, were terrorists blown up by their own explosives, but Ernazarov said he could not confirm that.

The violence reflects tensions in a country that has strongly supported U.S. anti-terrorism efforts in the region. U.S. forces are stationed at the Karshi Khanabad air base, from which special operations troops and others have launched missions into Afghanistan.

Domestic critics and international human rights activists have charged that the Uzbek government suppresses political opposition in the name of fighting terrorists, and one Uzbek activist suggested yesterday that the blasts might have been carried out by security forces in a bid to distract attention from demands for reform.

Early today, an explosion and a shootout between police and alleged terrorists outside Tashkent left several people injured, a news agency and a Western diplomat said, citing law enforcement sources.

A police source told a Western diplomat in Tashkent that a man in a car blew himself up today after being chased by police, and that a shootout had erupted at an apartment that authorities raided to capture three alleged suspects.

Several people were injured in the violence, the ITAR-Tass news agency reported.

The Foreign Ministry and president's office declined to confirm the reports.

Ernazarov said that Sunday night "there were several attacks on the police by gunmen who we believe were terrorists.

"The terrorists opened fire on the police when the police stopped their car and tried to check their documents," he said. Six officers were killed in the exchange, and a terrorist carrying explosives was arrested, he said.

Ernazarov said there were two explosions in Tashkent yesterday morning.

"The first one happened in the old city in Chorsu market," he said. "We haven't established it for sure yet because whoever set off the bomb was exploded along with it, ... but we think based on the findings that it was a woman suicide bomber."

Two people in addition to the bomber died in that blast, he said.

About an hour later, there was a second explosion near an Islamic religious school in the center of the city, but no one was killed by that bomb, he said.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the attacks "are yet another example of the importance of continuing cooperation against those who would stop at nothing to achieve their misguided goals."

But Talib Yakubov, chairman of the Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan, said yesterday that the blasts were probably the work of Uzbek secret services, designed to give the country an excuse not to meet human rights requirements imposed last year by the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development as a condition for loans.

"Among the demands was a requirement that Uzbekistan should admit that torture took place in its prisons and that steps should be taken to stop it," he said. "Nothing has been admitted, and no steps have been taken to eradicate that evil.

"Another demand was that various political parties and organizations should be allowed to get registered in Uzbekistan. It is not happening. Our organization has been struggling for six years to get officially registered, to no avail."

Uzbek Foreign Minister Sadyk Safayev, speaking at a news conference in Tashkent, put the incidents firmly in a global context.

"Unfortunately, we have all been witnessing a step-up in global terrorism," he said in remarks carried on Russian television. "We see manifestations of these activities in many parts of the planet. And to all appearances, they are links of the same chain."

Los Angeles Times staff writer Sergei L. Loiko and the Associated Press contributed to this article. The Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

Facts on Uzbekistan

Uzbekistan, one of five former Soviet Central Asian republics, is a key U.S. ally in the war on terrorism.

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