Authorities in Uzbekistan contend that Shaukat Makhmudov, one of three men killed in a Tashkent shootout in late August, was a top figure in the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. Makhmudov, officials add, is suspected of orchestrating assassinations earlier in the summer and was one of the alleged masterminds of 1999 bombings in Tashkent.
According to the Uzbek General Prosecutor's office, Makhmudov and two other men were killed by security forces on August 29 after they refused a deal to surrender their weapons. An unknown number of militants were detained in the same operation and later reportedly confessed they had been trained abroad. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Uzbek law enforcement authorities are linking the Makhmudov-led militant cell to the murders of Abror Abrorov, an assistant at the Kukeldash mosque on July 16; a knife attack on Anvar-qori Tursunov, the chief Imam at the same Mosque on July 31; and the murder of Hasan Asadov, an Interior Ministry anti-terrorism and anti-corruption officer investigating the crimes, shot five times at point blank range, on August 9.
Makhmudov, a Tashkent native who was 45 at the time of his death, had been a public enemy since his implication in the February 1999 bombings in the Uzbek capital. Those blasts, which opened the government's ongoing armed struggle against militant Islam, left 16 people dead. President Islam Karimov's administration maintains that the IMU-orchestrated the bombings.
According to a bulletin published by the General Directorate of Criminal Investigation and the Fight Against Terrorism at the Interior Ministry of Uzbekistan in May 2003, Makhmudov was wanted under Article 3 of the Criminal Code and "suspected of involvement in the terrorist acts of 16 February 1999 in Tashkent."
Some political observers in Central Asia are questioning the government's assertions. They point out that IMU is usually quick to claim responsibility for militant actions, but the group has yet to take credit for the murders of Aborov or Asadov, or the attack on Tursunov. "Shootouts between bandits and law enforcement agents are not a typical thing in Tashkent. There is the belief that the state is trying to create an illusion of terrorist threat," said a well-informed Central Asian source.
Meanwhile, Uzbek authorities' search for suspects and IMU supporters is being expanded to include the Kashkadarya region near the Uzbek-Afghan border, sources tell EurasiaNet. "Two killed people [killed in Tashkent on August 29] were a son and a father. They moved to Tashkent about six months ago from Kashkadarya," the source said.
Some local observers initially believed that the attempted murder of Imam Tursunov was related to unspecified business activities. But religious infighting remains a possible motive, the source continued. Tursunov, a high-profile cleric rumored to become the next chief mufti of Uzbekistan, was capable of making enemies with his outspoken criticism of radical Islamists.
"The version of events which suggests the attack was related to his religious activities is reasonable. He is a very well-know religious leader and he's famous for going to prisons and holding lectures there. But a year ago, when he held a lecture in one of the prison in Navoi, the prisoners began to protest and asked him to leave," the source said.
Most troublesome for the authorities is the murder of Asadov, who was gunned down in his apartment. The son of a former deputy health minister, Asadov held an elite position within the Uzbek hierarchy. His murder, apparently at the hands of Islamic militants, is directly related to his role in investigating the attack on Tursunov, both Western and Uzbek sources have confirmed to EurasiaNet. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
"The murder of Hasan Asadov is related to the fact that he was in the commission investigating the attack on Imam Tursunov," a Tashknet-based source told EurasiaNet on September 8.
The Kashkadarya link to the shootout in Tashkent has caused trouble for human rights activists in the area. Several report that their neighbors have been warned to cease contact with them because of their alleged links with religious extremists, specifically Hizb-ut-Tahrir.
Separately, a human rights activist missing since police bundled him into a car on September 5 in the city of Karshi in Kashkadarya has been found alive. The authorities denied any knowledge of his arrest or his whereabouts, but Gaibullo Jalilov was eventually discovered sitting in a city police cell on the evening of September 8 where he is currently serving a 10-day prison term for "resisting authority."
Deirdre Tynan is a freelance journalist who specializes in Central Asian affairs.