A suicide bombing in Andijan on May 26 offers strong evidence that Islamic militants are returning to Uzbekistan after an extended sojourn in Pakistan. The bombing, along with the abortive militant raid in the border town of Khanabad, suggests that President Islam Karimov's administration may be in for a volatile summer.
According to state-controlled media outlets, the suicide bombing, which occurred on Fitrat Street in central Andijan, left at least one police officer dead and several bystanders wounded. State news outlets hinted that the explosion was the work of "bandit" elements, which is government code for Islamic militants.
Uzbek authorities also blamed "bandits" for armed attacks in and around Khanabad, a border town that serves as a major crossing point between Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. Official Uzbek news sources said that late on May 25 a small group of militants attacked a police post on the outskirts of Khanabad, leaving a police officer and attacker wounded. In a separate incident, a group comprising of five individuals attacked a building in central Khanabad that houses the local branches of the Interior Ministry and State Security Service, or SNB. Some independent media outlets reported that as many as 25 militants were involved in the raid.
According to a statement issued by the Uzbek Prosecutor General's office, the militants penetrated Uzbekistan from Kyrgyzstan. Authorities in Tashkent set up an operations center to coordinate the government response to the new security threats.
Some portions of the Ferghana Valley were under lockdown conditions on May 26. Besides maintaining a heavy presence in Khanabad, security troops and police were out in force in Andijan, the scene of a government crackdown on civilian demonstrators in May of 2005. Heavily armed troops patrolled the city's streets and police established checkpoints throughout the Ferghana Valley. In addition, the entire length of the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border is sealed. And sources in Uzbekistan told EurasiaNet that mobile phone communication were being blocked and news web sites were being censored.
Security forces appeared to restore order in Khanabad by daybreak on May 26, according to observers who could glimpse events in Khanabad from the Kyrgyz side of the border. A Kyrgyz security source told EurasiaNet the situation on the border remained "calm but tense." A statement issued by the Kyrgyz Border Service reported that there was no "increased flow of people into the Kyrgyz Republic."
While Uzbek authorities certainly seem in control, what prompted the militant outburst remains a mystery.
Tension seemed to be brewing in Uzbekistan in the days and weeks before the clash and the suicide bombing. A security source in Tashkent suggested that "a lot of arrests" had been made in the Andijan region, and other locations in Uzbekistan, in the weeks prior to the Khanabad incident. The same source also indicated that Uzbek officials closed the border early on May 25. If such timing is accurate, it means that the border was sealed prior to the outbreak of violence. It is impossible to know, however, whether the recent arrests or the border closing had any role in precipitating the Khanabad violence.
Some experts see a potential link between the Khanabad firefight and the anti-Taliban offensive being carried out in Pakistan. After getting their start in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan in the 1990s-early 2000s, many Central Asian militants drifted to safe havens in Pakistan's tribal areas.
Now those Pakistani safe havens are becoming less secure. Pakistani troops have pressed an offensive in the Swat Valley that has pushed the Taliban back on their heels, and there is a widespread expectation that the government will soon expand its security sweep in the renegade-rich region of Waziristan. Under increasing pressure in Pakistan, Central Asian militants may be opting to return home, reviving the idea of fomenting an insurgency in Central Asia. The use of suicide bombing as a tactic is indicative of an outside influence.
Some early reports suggested that the Khanabad clash began following some sort of incident at a police checkpoint on a road near the border town. Other reports suggested local factors, such as smuggling, could have been involved.
Russian media outlets have indicated the Khanabad attack was the handiwork of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. Regardless of whether or not that was the case, some regional experts believe that Islamic militants may lack the infrastructure in Central Asia to create a sustainable insurgency.
"The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan does not have the social and financial base for it," Kyrgyz political scientist Nur Omarov said in an interview with EurasiaNet.
"Although people in Uzbekistan are against the illegitimate rule of Karimov they are still not ready and do not want to become part of radical Islamic world. As a result, the Islamic Movement doesn't have many chances," Omarov continued. "This is an episodic display of power, to show that [resistance] still exists and to show foreign friends and sponsors that they [deserve] to support."
This story contains reporting by EurasiaNet correspondent Deirdre Tynan.