Uzbeks blame Muslim group for unrest

Member of political party denies link to al-Qaida

April 10, 2004|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

TASHKENT, Uzbekistan - The Uzbek government yesterday blamed four recent days of deadly attacks and suicide bombings on a banned Islamic group whose members allegedly got their training from the instructors of al-Qaida fighters. But a member of the outlawed organization said in an interview that her group had played no part in the unrest.

"We only use two tools to fight the regime: our religious ideas and peaceful political means," said the 31-year-old woman, who spent five years in Uzbek prisons for her membership in Hizb ut-Tahrir, the banned Party of Liberation.

In recent days, a series of attacks seemingly directed at the police killed 48 people in the cities of Tashkent and Bukhara: 10 police officers, 34 militants and four civilians. No one has claimed responsibility for the attacks, and it remains unclear who was behind them.

The violence at the end of last month and early this month, which included the first suicide bombings in Central Asia, is the first unrest in Uzbekistan since it became a U.S. ally after the Sept. 11 attacks. American troops use a southern Uzbek air base, at Khanabad, for missions into northern Afghanistan. The former Soviet base, which played a key role in driving the hard-line Taliban regime from power in Afghanistan, remains under American control.

Uzbekistan, about the size of California, is ruled by an authoritarian regime headed by President Islam Karimov. His record on human rights has been assailed by humanitarian agencies, U.N. investigators and the State Department.

Yesterday, Uzbekistan's prosecutor general tied the recent deadly attacks to Hizb ut-Tahrir (Islamic Party of Liberation), a political and religious group that favors a caliphate, or religious regime, in Central Asia. The group has been ambitious in its goals but has long been viewed as nonviolent by scholars, clerics and political analysts.

The State Department's most recent annual report on terrorism, released a year ago, says: "There is no evidence to date that Hizb ut-Tahrir has committed any terrorist acts, but the group is clearly sympathetic to Islamic extremist objectives." A more radical group, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, is allied with al-Qaida.

Ravshan Kadirov, the Uzbek prosecutor, said some elements of Hizb ut-Tahrir "underwent psychological influence on a subliminal level to get them to conduct jihad," or holy war, against the Uzbek government. "They were brainwashed with audio and video materials, tapes and religious literature," Kadirov said.

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