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Central Asia

Uzbekistan: Sifting for clues
By Kathleen Knox and Daniel Kimmage

PRAGUE - During a shooting in Tashkent on Wednesday, Uzbek special forces battled armed fighters holed up in a suburban apartment block. Some 23 people - mostly suspects - were killed by the time special forces ended the siege.

The incident was the latest in a series of blasts and shootouts to hit Tashkent and the ancient Silk Road city of Bukhara, killing at least 43 people since Sunday night.

Authorities have blamed the Hizb ut-Tahrir, an Islamic group seeking the creation of a caliphate spanning all of Central Asia. Officials in Tashkent claim that the group is working in concert with Islamic militants and with help from extremists abroad.

Uzbek Foreign Minister Sadyk Safayev called the attacks an attempt to undermine the US-led coalition against terrorism, of which Uzbekistan is a member. "Today we can say that there were attempts to destroy the international anti-terrorist coalition. The targets were not chosen by chance. We see a direct connection between the ideology of Hizb ut-Tahrir, other extremist ideologies, and terrorism," Safayev said.

The prosecutor-general was quoted as saying that 30 suspects had been arrested in connection with the violence.

But with still no claim of responsibility, and little information from officials, it's a guessing game of who is behind the attacks.

Svante Cornell is an expert on Central Asia at Sweden's Uppsala University. "The reigning assumption is that this is a work done by the most prevalent armed opposition to the government, which is the Islamic extremists," he says. "[It could be] in the form of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan [IMU], which has a known track record for armed uprising. It could be linked to international terrorism with al-Qaeda - which does not exclude the IMU, which was tightly linked to al-Qaeda. And a third version is that it's a splinter group of Hizb ut-Tahrir, which is a self-avowed peaceful grouping but which has been showing signs of not being as united in Central Asia as in other parts of the world," Cornell said.

Hizb ut-Tahrir has no known ties to violent activities. Observers say that the group's literature does not renounce violence in armed struggles, already under way, in which it views Muslims as victims of persecution - as in Chechnya or Kashmir. But members reject the use of violence to achieve their own aim of establishing the caliphate.

Hizb ut-Tahir, which has its base in Western Europe, has been banned in Germany for disseminating what was deemed anti-Semitic and anti-Israeli propaganda. Although the group has never been officially banned in Uzbekistan, it is not a registered group, and therefore operates illegally, and with considerable secrecy.

Critics say that blaming the group suits the political agenda of President Islam Karimov and his repression of religious freedoms.

There was a fresh reminder of that on Tuesday, in a new report by the New York-based Human Rights Watch. It says that the government has arrested and tortured thousands of Muslims who practice their faith outside strict state controls - including members of Hizb ut-Tahrir.

Tamara Makarenko is a research fellow at Scotland's Center for the Study of Terrorism. She says: "The Uzbek government has been trying very hard to demonize Hizb ut-Tahrir. So if they can provide evidence or say that they have evidence that points to Hizb ut-Tahrir, then it would justify every single action that they've perpetrated against Hizb ut-Tahrir members."

Analysts say that there is a possibility that some on the fringe of Hizb ut-Tahrir have become disenchanted and radicalized. But even such observers are skeptical of the government's claim of links between Hizb ut-Tahrir and the unabashedly militant IMU.

The IMU was set up with the goal of overthrowing Karimov's government and is listed by the US State Department as a terrorist organization. It set up training camps in Afghanistan and carried out armed raids into Uzbekistan in the late 1990s. Authorities accused the group of being behind a series of bombings in Tashkent in 1999.

The IMU lost a lot of its military manpower in the US-led war in Afghanistan. But some - like Aleksei Malashenko of the Carnegie Center in Moscow - say that remnants may be behind the recent violence.

"I don't think it was Hizb ut-Tahrir - they have other slogans, other principles, and they're never acted like this before. It's probably the homegrown IMU or an analogous organization. Another thing is, you can't look at these attacks outside the context of what is happening in general in the Islamic political landscape. Those governments that are supporting the US - and Uzbekistan supports them - are under threat. What happened recently in Madrid shows that. So it's a double strike - unfortunately, probably not the last such strike - and it shows that governments that are involved in some way in the anti-terror coalition are, from the point of view of terrorists, enemies of Islam and legitimate targets of any actions," Malashenko said.

Uzbekistan has cooperated with the US-led war in Afghanistan, in part by opening its Khanabad air base to coalition troops. But some observers dispute the violence has anything to do with Uzbekistan's support of the US in its "war on terror".

Frederick Starr heads the Central Asia Caucasus Institute at Johns Hopkins University in the US. He notes that the targets in the recent violence have been mainly police - not the army, president's office, or other government institutions. And he notes that at least one suicide bomber is said to have been a woman.

"What women might have reason to be concerned or hostile? A possibility there - again, it's only a hypothesis - is families of those who have been convicted and incarcerated for religious extremism. This would be a consistent activity and again, we don't know, but it seems entirely possible. I don't think the hypothesis that this is family members carrying out acts of revenge against the police is incompatible with the notion that this is centrally organized, which is evident, or that it has connections abroad, which is more than likely," Starr said.

The targeting of police also raises another possibility - that the attacks were prompted by widespread anger at police corruption and brutality.

Confusion about the attacks has been heightened by the fact that the Uzbek government has been largely silent regarding the violence. The state-run television news opened on Wednesday with details of a meeting between Karimov and former Lithuanian president Valdas Adamkus - not the days of local violence.

Whoever was behind the attacks, observers say that authorities are likely to crack down further on religious and opposition groups.

Annette Bohr, a Central Asia expert at Cambridge University, says: "It will have a definite impact on the security situation in Uzbekistan in particular, and in all of Central Asia, since President Karimov's actions - in particular, repressive measures - do have a great impact on neighboring countries. I think it's clear he will attempt to crack down even more, which will ultimately lead to a greater backlash, so it's foreseeable that these kinds of attacks and counterattacks will continue for a long time to come."

Rumors
Two persistent rumors floated at the margins of news reports and formed the basis of heated discussions on Uzbek web forums. The first was that the Interior Ministry and National Security Service had been placed on high alert in the week preceding the attacks. The second rumor was that policemen were called up for special duty at 3 am the night before events began, and that some policemen had instructed their relatives to remain at home.

Official reactions
Karimov announced in a televised interview on March 29 that extremists with backing from abroad had spent six to eight months preparing the terror attacks. He termed them "evil forces" and described them as hoping "to destabilize the situation". Prosecutor-General Rashid Qodirov was more specific in a news conference the same day, blaming Hizb ut-Tahrir and the IMU.

A spokesperson for Hizb ut-Tahrir denied the charge. Imran Waheed in London stressed that the group eschews violence and suggested that the Uzbek government itself could be behind the attacks.

Muhammad Solih, leader of the opposition Erk (Freedom) Party, condemned the terror attacks while noting that "the political regime of Uzbekistan, with its emphasis on repression against dissidents, has created good conditions for terror". Other opposition figures and groups also mixed condemnation for the attacks with criticism of the government in their statements.

Official international reaction was largely uniform. US State Department spokesman Richard Boucher delivered characteristic remarks, saying: "We'd like to extend our condolences to the government of Uzbekistan and the Uzbek people for the injuries and loss of life caused by these terrorist attacks. The attacks are yet another example of the importance of continuing cooperation against those who would stop at nothing to achieve their misguided goals." US Secretary of State Colin Powell told Uzbek Foreign Minister Sodiq Safoyev that the US is ready to assist Uzbekistan in the wake of the terror attacks.

International context
The terror attacks come at a time when Uzbekistan is experiencing growing international pressure over its human rights record. One notes that many of the cases that have stirred international indignation took place in the context of Uzbek efforts to contain such Islamist groups as Hizb ut-Tahrir.

Recent reports by International Crisis Group and Human Rights Watch have lambasted the Uzbek government for an egregious and worsening record of human rights violations. The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development will soon make a decision on whether to maintain its current level of engagement with Uzbekistan; most observers view Uzbek economic reforms as stalled.

Finally, the Bush administration faces a difficult decision in the spring over Uzbekistan, where the US maintains a forward supply base in Uzbekistan to support operations in Afghanistan. A recent State Department report gave Uzbekistan low marks on human rights, and government-to-government assistance programs totaling some US$50 million will have to be axed unless the Bush administration decides to waive the human rights requirements. Domestic pressure has been building on the issue, with a number of op-eds and editorials in The Washington Post condemning Uzbekistan's human rights record, questioning the country's usefulness as a US ally in the "war on terror", and urging increased US pressure on the Karimov regime to take action on human rights issues.

Commentary
While only Uzbek officials seemed ready to assign blame for the attacks, some independent observers were willing to offer cautious analytical comments. Aleksei Malashenko of the Carnegie Moscow Center told The New York Times on March 30 that the attack was similar to the recent bombings in Spain in that it targeted a US ally. In separate comments quoted on polit.ru, Malashenko noted: "In addition to the goals set by al-Qaeda and other international Islamist organizations, there was another goal here - to show Karimov and the entire Uzbek establishment that they're not the sole rulers of the country. Uzbek Islamist terrorists are trying to influence the domestic situation; they're pursuing their own goals."

The domestic situation was the primary focus of concern for other observers. Sergei Yezhkov, a journalist from Uzbekistan who was recently dismissed from a state-controlled newspaper for being too outspoken, contributed two articles to fergana.ru in response to the attacks. In the first, on March 30, he wrote: "I recall the words of one of my colleagues, who spoke immediately after the first explosions rang out in Tashkent. 'This is the shot from the Aurora', he remarked bitterly." In a later comment, Yezhkov remarked that calm had returned to Tashkent by the morning of March 31 and "the acts of violence and terror that unexpectedly befell the country ended as quickly as they began".

Yezhkov suggested that the organizers had hoped to trigger a general uprising. "Knowing the true attitude of most people toward the police," he wrote, "those who prepared the acts of terror probably hoped to be met with understanding and support [among the populace]." But Yezhkov noted that the vast majority of Uzbeks, however much they might dislike a police force viewed as corrupt and often brutal, chose to uphold the law in the face of instability. Still, he warned: "Even though they were using live ammunition, these suicidal individuals' plan misfired. But we should not forget it, for it is important to remember its causes."

Finally, Esmer Islamov, a freelance journalist specializing in Uzbek political affairs, writing under a pseudonym, opined on EurasiaNet on March 30: "The broad scope of the violence ... suggests that the episode may be a home-grown insurgency, rather than a strike by international terrorists." He concluded: "It may be the work of a new group, with its origins rooted in the despair generated by the Karimov government's stranglehold over the country's political and economic life."

Conclusion
Only one conclusion emerges clearly from the events in Uzbekistan at this early stage. The above-noted similarity between the attacks in Madrid and Uzbekistan - both are US allies - is offset by a glaring difference: the attack in Madrid was intended to kill a large number of ordinary people; the attacks in Uzbekistan primarily targeted policemen and do not appear to have been designed to cause significant civilian casualties. The pattern of such presumed al-Qaeda attacks as Madrid, Bali, and even Casablanca does not hold in Uzbekistan. Even if a subsequent link to a radical Islamist group emerges - for now, the only evidence is the participation of veiled women - the attacks appear to have been regime-focused, and not just murderous mayhem.

Significantly, a similar focus on regime was evident in initial reactions to the bombings at the Chorsu market. RFE/RL's Uzbek Service reported on March 29 that police beat an old man to death at Chorsu on March 28 after he interceded in a dispute between police and saleswomen. EurasiaNet reported on March 30: "A palpable hostility for the police could be felt among onlookers at the Chorsu bazaar ... Some mentioned an incident the day before the blasts occurred, in which a vendor had been beaten to death by police." RFE/RL's Uzbek Service recorded similar emotions: "But most of the traders and witnesses at Chorsu linked [the bombings] with the incident on March 28 when police beat a 78-year-old man to death at Chorsu."

If its initial reactions are any guide, the Uzbek government is likely to try to demonstrate as much similarity as possible between the attacks in Bukhara and Tashkent and such strikes as Madrid, Bali, and Casablanca - stressing foreign ties and underscoring an Islamist presence in the form of such organizations as Hizb ut-Tahrir and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. Barring a convincing claim of responsibility, only a thorough and professional investigation can show whether these elements were indeed present. At the same time, the Uzbek government will probably say as little as possible about another possible scenario that it would very much like to avoid - a violent, Islamic-inflected domestic resistance movement that feeds on popular resentment and strikes at regime targets.

(RFE/RL's Uzbek Service contributed to this report.)

Copyright (c) 2004, RFE/RL Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Washington DC 20036


Apr 2, 2004



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(Mar 31, '04) 

 

 

 
   
         
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