Fighting Rages For Third Straight Day in Uzbekistan
Gun battles and bombings continued for a third straight day in the Uzbek capital Tashkent. [For background see the EurasiaNet insight archive]. The broad scope of the violence, the full extent of which is difficult to determine due to government press restrictions, suggests that the episode may be a home-grown movement, rather than a strike by international terrorists. Casualty figures for the clashes on March 30 were not immediately available, but it is clear that there are significant casualties among both militants and state security forces, along with civilians caught in the crossfire.
The government has claimed that Islamic radicals, with international terrorist connections, are behind the violence. Radical groups operating in Uzbekistan, including Hizb-ut-Tahrir, have not claimed responsibility. Scattered bits of information coming to light raise questions about an international terrorist connection, lending credence to the notion that the violence is a popular reaction to government repression.
Prolonged exchanges of gunfire could be heard throughout the day in Tashkent. Some of the fiercest fighting was reported around the TTZ tractor plant, in the general vicinity of one of President Islam Karimov's residences. Witnesses reported hearing an explosion just before 8 am outside a neighborhood police station. The sound of gunfire filled the neighborhood, with local residents estimating that the fighting occurred over an approximately a two-kilometer radius around the TTZ plant. In all, approximately 20 explosions were heard during the clash, which continued until about 2 pm.
This EurasiaNet correspondent monitored communications among police, utilizing the same type of Motorola walkie-talkie that is commonly used by security officials. Judging by the overheard comments, security forces struggled to contain the militants. One overheard comment "We need black bags" indicates that at least several security troops were killed. In addition, this EurasiaNet correspondent witnessed one wounded officer transported from the scene by an ambulance.
Officials later reported that a group of about nine militants had barricaded themselves in a house near the TTZ plant. After authorities determined that the militants did not have any hostages, they brought in an armored vehicle to open fire on the house, destroying the building and killing all those inside. Later police said they believed that at least three of the dead militants had participated in raids carried out in the same neighborhood on March 28. They based their conclusions on the fact that pistols found on or near the dead men apparently had been taken from police during the earlier confrontation. An Interior Ministry statement said 16 militants and three police officers were killed in fighting around the TTZ plant.
Fighting was reported in a wide variety of other locations in the capital. On the outer edge of northeastern Tashkent, a suicide car bomber detonated at a police checkpoint at about 9 am. militants also attacked a nearby police station. Witnesses reported seeing at least three bodies, including one police officer.
About 15 kilometers outside Tashkent, two Interior Ministry troops were reported killed in a clash with militants. There was also an unconfirmed report of a car bombing in the Bostanlik District, in the vicinity of the Chorvak Reservoir. The report raised fears that the militants might have been trying to blow up the dam at Chorvak. Such an act could potentially inundate Tashkent.
In the late afternoon, security forces cordoned off an area near the Druzhba Narodov metro station. They evacuated a 9-story building and a 12-story building and proceeded to search the buildings for explosives. Elsewhere in Tashkent, authorities were in full clampdown mode. Streets were largely deserted of civilians and police stood at myriad checkpoints, stopping and searching all vehicles. Train and bus transport in and out of Tashkent was halted.
The international community has generally accepted the Karimov government's contention that the attacks are the work of international terrorists. In particular, the US officials indicated that the attacks would serve to strengthen the US-Uzbek strategic alliance. The Bush administration has emerged as Karimov's primary backer in recent years, in large part because Uzbekistan is home to a US military base that is used for ongoing anti-terrorist operations in neighboring Afghanistan. [For background information see the Eurasia Insight archive]. "The attacks are yet another example of the importance of continued cooperation against those who would stop at nothing to achieve their misguided goals," US State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said March 29.
While the militants have utilized some terrorist techniques, in particular suicide bombings, some observers in Tashkent believe the attacks may not be connected to known Islamic radical groups, such as Hizb and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. Instead, 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.
Karimov in a televised address March 29 claimed that Islamic radicals, in concert with international terrorist groups, had been planning the attacks for up to eight months. However, some eyewitness accounts raise doubts about assertions of an international connection. First, some reports indicate that the militants were poorly armed. The account that some militants took pistols from police officers would appear to substantiate these reports. At the same time, the bombs employed by the militants appear to be crudely fashioned, with limited explosive force, assembled with locally available components. Some observers feel that if either the Hizb or the IMU had been involved in the attacks, the militants would have been better equipped.
Attention is focusing on Bukhara's link to the violence. The ancient city southwest of Tashkent was the scene of several explosions on the second day of violence March 29, including a blast at a suspected militant bomb-making factory. Officials claimed that they discovered 1.5 tons of explosives in the ruins of the blast site, located in the Romitanskii Region of Bukhara, the Tribune.uz web site reported. Many of the militants are believed to be from the Bukhara area, although this could not be independently verified.
Some Tashkent observers speculate that while the attacks could have been in the planning stages for a while, the attacks may have been triggered by the police beating death of an elderly man from Bukhara at the Chorsu bazaar on March 28. Others say the attacks could have nothing to do with the Chorsu incident, and were instead intended to coincide with Novruz, the Muslim New Year on March 21.
There is a growing belief among Uzbeks that the attacks constitute a reprisal against a rapacious police force. Fueling this view is the fact that most of the attacks to date have targeted police officers, while avoiding strikes at government buildings and other strategic installations. The car-bombing at the Chorvak reservoir, if confirmed, would undermine this theory, however.
Many Uzbeks seethe over the arbitrary and corrupt action of agents of the state's security apparatus. At bazaars across Uzbekistan, police brutality is on display every day. This EurasiaNet correspondent was at the Chorsu bazaar in Tashkent recently, observing numerous police shakedowns of vendors, many of whom operate illegally to evade punitive government taxation. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. These shakedowns were conducted in plain view. In one particularly troubling incident, a police officer viciously kicked an elderly woman who did not move out of the way fast enough.
The Chorsu bazaar was the scene of two suicide bombings on March 29. According to one eyewitness story related to those blasts, it is understandable why the militants appear to be targeting the police. Following the explosions, law-enforcement authorities evacuated all employees of Detskii Mir, a large children's store near where the bombings occurred, according to an employee interviewed by EurasiaNet. When employees were allowed back into the building they noticed that the store had effectively been looted, with many high-priced items missing from display cases. Since the area had been sealed, employees believe police officers absconded with the goods.
Virtually everyone interviewed over the past two days expressed little sympathy for the police, and said government policies were driving people to revolt. A man interviewed near the TTZ tractor plant vented about the complete lack of civil rights and economic opportunity in Uzbekistan. The attacks, the man asserted, are a "serious expression of popular anger."
"There may be more incidents tomorrow and the day after tomorrow, and into the future because people are desperate," said the man, who like all those interviewed refused to give his name, citing concern about government retribution. "Until the situation concerning human rights and the economy is resolved, the source of terrorism will not be rooted out."
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