Moscow — A series of explosions and shootouts in Uzbekistan on Tuesday left nearly two dozen people dead in the bloodiest wave of violence to hit the former Soviet republic since it enlisted as a key U.S. ally in the war on terrorism, officials and witnesses said.
The bloodshed brought the death toll to 42 in three days, the government said. All of the attacks appeared to target Uzbek authorities.
Twenty suspected militants and three Uzbek police officers were killed in an hours-long confrontation that played out not far from the country home of President Islam Karimov, according to a duty officer at the Uzbek Interior Ministry reached by telephone in Tashkent.
Some of the militants were shot by Uzbek officers while others blew themselves up, witnesses said. A civilian was also killed, a witness said.
The violence came after 19 other people died in explosions and attacks Sunday and Monday that the government blamed on Islamic radicals. Uzbekistan has suffered from sporadic terrorist incidents over the last five years, but the group fingered by Uzbek officials this week denied any involvement in the latest attacks.
The latest bloodshed began Tuesday morning when two women driving a car up to a police checkpoint on the road to Karimov’s official residence in northern Tashkent’s Yalanganch neighborhood were stopped. They got out and detonated belts of explosives, according to official accounts.
A local resident who refused to give her name said the women wore veils revealing only their eyes, rare attire in secular Uzbekistan. She said they were speaking another Central Asian language she could not understand.
Police chased other extremists into a nearby residential area and surrounded buildings where they took refuge. The two sides exchanged gunfire for hours, according to officials and witnesses, with some of the militants exploding grenades to kill themselves. Another female suicide bomber reportedly killed herself in a blast as well.
Uzbekistan became a frontline partner in the U.S.-led battle against Islamic terrorism shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in New York and the Pentagon. At Karimov’s invitation, the U.S. military opened a base that it continues to use to stage operations in Afghanistan.
But Washington has criticized the secular Karimov government’s harsh policies toward observant Muslims as excessive and counterproductive, threatening recently to cut off financial aid if its human rights record does not improve. At least 6,000 people remain in Uzbek prisons because of their religious or political beliefs, according to human rights groups.
Human Rights Watch issued a 300-page report Tuesday on Uzbekistan’s repression of Muslims, documenting what it called “systematic torture, ill- treatment, public degradation and denial of due process.” The report concluded: “Uzbekistan’s campaign against independent Islam has targeted Muslims who exhibited no objective independence from the state but who were simply deemed ‘too pious’ by state agents.”
Uzbekistan first faced high-profile terrorism in 1999 when a series of bombings in Tashkent killed 16 people. The explosions were attributed to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, a radical group that went on to stage other violent attacks over the next two years and eventually moved to Afghanistan to link up with Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda.
The IMU was largely destroyed during the U.S. war in Afghanistan in 2001. Officials in Tashkent said this week’s attacks were probably the work of another radical Islamic group, Hizb ut-Tahrir, or Party of Liberation, that reports at least 10,000 members in Uzbekistan.
However, Hizb ut-Tahrir officially eschews violence as a means to its goal and denies any involvement in this week’s violence.