A series of bombings and shootings March 29 left at least 19 people dead and dozens more wounded in Uzbekistan, according to official reports. Authorities confirmed two suicide bombings at the main bazaar in the Uzbek capital of Tashkent, but the full extent of the violence remained difficult to determine, in large measure due to the government's tight control over mass media and information gathering. Unconfirmed reports of numerous other bombings and shooting were circulating in Tashkent, including a bombing late at night on March 28 near one of President Islam Karimov's residences.
Uzbek officials quickly sought to link confirmed attacks in Tashkent and Bukhara to international terrorism. Prosecutor Rashid Kadyrov noted that the use of suicide bombers in the attacks "indicated foreign involvement." Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Sadiq Safayev said that the "hands of international terror" were behind the violence "Attempts are being made to split the international anti-terror coalition," he said.
Tashkent residents interviewed by EurasiaNet appeared to treat the government assertions skeptically. Many believed the attacks to be connected to pent-up popular frustration generated the government's ongoing crackdown on individual liberty, along with officials' reluctance to take action to improve a deteriorating economy. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. "Why are we so all so poor?" asked one man interviewed near the Chorsu bazaar, scene of the suicide bombings. The man blamed the government for imposing restrictions that stifled economic opportunities for most Uzbeks. The majority of vendors at markets, he added, were operating illegally because they could not afford to stay in business if they followed government regulations, including the imposition of onerous tariffs on imported goods. As a result, they were vulnerable to police shake-downs. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive] "People see no legal way to make an honest living. They are desperate," the man said.
No organization has claimed responsibility for the March 29 attacks. Kadyrov said a leading suspect was Hizb-ut-Tahrir, an underground organization that has advocated the peaceful ouster of Karimov's government and the establishment of an Islamic caliphate in Uzbekistan. Another prime suspect, in the government's view, is the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive].
The web site, Muslim Uzbekistan, quoted a Foreign Ministry spokesman as saying suspects were in custody and being interrogated. If a Hizb link is proved, it would mark a drastic break with the past for the movement. Up to now, Hizb has operated clandestinely, its activities largely limited to the distribution of anti-government leaflets and posters. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive].
In recent weeks, the Uzbek government has mounted an intense information campaign against Hizb. Uzbek Youth Radio has led the charge, airing a series of scathing commentaries aimed at discouraging Uzbeks from joining the underground movement. "The wicked Hizb-ut-Tahrir, after entering our country, has been brainwashing our young people and hatching various plots to seize power by force," said a March 8 commentary. An editorial aired three days earlier said: "Hizb-ut-Tahrir members claim they are going to come to power by peaceful means. However, their leaflets call on their supporters to wage the holy war, jihad."
In a televised address late March 29, Karimov alleged, without producing concrete data, that "terrorists had been planning the attacks for six-to-eight months." The president announced that a state commission had already been formed to investigate the attacks. "From all that we know, the goal of the organizers of these crimes was the destruction of popular peace, in order to sow disorder in society and change the political course of the country," Karimov said.
Regardless of who was behind the March 29 attacks, it appears that the primary target was Uzbekistan's security apparatus. Unconfirmed reports suggested that the Chorsu market bombings were specifically designed to inflict significant police casualties. The first suicide bomber detonated at approximately 8:20 am not far from the bazaar's bus terminal. It came at a time when two police shifts were overlapping. Approximately 50 minutes elapsed between the first and second suicide blasts, indicating that the bombers wanted to give police time to sweep the area of bystanders, thus presenting a clearer, more concentrated target. Both suicide bombers were believed to be women. According to the Muslim Uzbekistan web site, there was a third, unconfirmed, bombing at the Chorsu market, in which a man jumped out of a vehicle and "plunged into [a group of] policemen and blew himself [up]."
A EurasiaNet correspondent arrived at the site of the Chorsu explosions at 9.30 am The bazaar was closed and cordoned off by the police. Out of about 15 policemen approached for an explanation, only one admitted that there had been explosions. Others claimed that "the market is closed for a sanitary inspection" or that they did not know anything. Despite the havoc, some Chorsu vendors continued to sell their wares, mostly food products, near the central entrance to the market. The rest of the city appeared relatively calm.
A palpable hostility for the police could be felt among onlookers at the Chorsu bazaar following the blasts. Many complained about arbitrary behavior by law-enforcement officers. Some mentioned an incident the day before the blasts occurred, in which a vendor had been beaten to death by police. The circumstances surrounding the incident could not be immediately verified.
In addition to the Chorsu bombings, state television provided information about two separate attacks against police officers during the night of March 28-29 in Tashkent. One shooting incident near the city's Textile Institute left two police officers dead. Another police officer was killed and one wounded in a shootout near the TTZ Tractor Plant. Unconfirmed reports said an explosion occurred near Karimov's Durmen residence, which is located in the same area as the TTZ plant. Shortly after the shooting incident at TTZ, police foot patrols flooded the area.
In addition, state-controlled media reported that an explosion in the city of Bukhara killed 10 people and 26 injured. Official accounts said the blast occurred in an apartment being used by "terrorists" as a bomb-making factory. At least two other bombs went off in Bukhara, Uzbek authorities said. The Itar-Tass news agency quoted Uzbek Foreign Ministry spokesman Elkhom Zakirov as saying no casualty reports had been received from Bukhara. The Interfax news agency, citing a source within the Uzbek Interior Ministry, said it was possible that bombings "were planned in other regions" across the country.
The March 29 attacks were the most violent incidents to hit Uzbekistan since a series of bombings in Tashkent in February 1999. Karimov blamed those attacks on the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, but a definitive link to Islamic radicals was never produced. The 1999 bombings sparked a far-reaching government crackdown on civil rights, in which thousands of Muslims were arrested for engaging in non state-sanctioned forms of religious expression. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Esmer Islamov is the pseudonym of a freelance journalist specializing in Uzbek political affairs.