March 30, 2004
By Daniel McLaughlin in Moscow and Ahmed Rashid in Lahore
Islamist terrorists were blamed yesterday after two suicide bombings, an explosion and a series of gunfights left at least 19 people dead in Uzbekistan, a crucial American ally in the war against terrorism.
The attacks coincided with claims that the leader of an Uzbek Islamist terrorist group fighting with al-Qa'eda had been wounded during battles in Pakistan's wild borderlands.
They marked the largest outbreak of Islamist violence in the former Soviet republics of central Asia since the September 11 attacks unleashed the war against the Taliban and al-Qa'eda in nearby Afghanistan.
Two terrorists, possibly women according to Uzbek police, blew themselves up in a central bazaar in the capital, Tashkent, killing three policemen and a child.
The night before, three policemen died in at least two gun attacks. At about the same time, an explosion killed 10 people in the ancient city of Bukhara, in what officials called a hideout for extremists.
Sadyk Safayev, Uzbekistan's foreign minister, said his country was stable last night, despite an urgent warning from the US embassy in Tashkent that "other terrorists are believed to be still at large and may be attempting additional attacks". The embassy urged US nationals to be on the "highest alert".
Mr Safayev insisted: "The terrorists aimed to create panic and chaos, but they didn't manage to do so."
He said the explosives were similar to those used by the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, a group linked to al-Qa'eda. Tashkent blames IMU bombers for an attempt to assassinate the autocratic Uzbek leader Islam Karimov in 1999.
Pakistani officials said one exiled leader of the IMU, Tahir Yuldashev, was wounded during 12 days of fighting close to Pakistan's border with Afghanistan. He was described as the tenth most senior figure in al-Qa'eda.
Uzbek officials declined to comment on a possible link between the attacks in Tashkent and Bukhara and the fighting in the Waziristan region.
Pakistan said yesterday that 63 al-Qa'eda guerrillas were killed along with one of the organisation's intelligence chiefs, identified only as "Mr Abdullah", although terrorist experts did not immediately recognise him.
Mr Safayev said the attacks in Uzbekistan were aimed at damaging one of Washington's key allies.
He said that not only the IMU but Hizb ut-Tahrir, another banned group that wants to establish a pan-Islamic state in central Asia, could be linked to the attacks.
If confirmed, it would be the first such act by Hizb ut-Tahrir, an avowedly peaceful group, which Uzbek authorities insist is full of dangerous radicals intent on violently toppling the regime of Mr Karimov, 66, who has been in power since 1989.
International human rights groups have repeatedly accused Tashkent of torturing and killing political opponents, and of using the threat of Islamic extremism as a cover for ruthlessly silencing all dissent in Uzbekistan.
The former Soviet state of 25 million people was the first in the strategically vital region to lend support to Washington's plans to oust the Taliban after September 11. US troops based in Uzbekistan still fly sorties into Afghanistan and have pledged to remain until the country is fully secure.
The IMU was implicated in a series of abductions in the mountains of central Asia, where US climbers and Japanese geologists were kidnapped in 1999 and 2000.
Guerrillas from the IMU are said to have suffered severe losses while fighting with the Taliban, and the group's leader, Juma Namangani, was reported to have been killed.
Copyright of Telegraph Group Limited