TASHKENT (AFP) – Suicide bombers hit the US and Israeli embassies and Uzbekistan’s prosecutor general’s office in simultaneous attacks in Tashkent, killing themselves and at least two other people. “There are body parts everywhere,” said a witness who lives outside the US embassy, adding that there appeared to be heavy casualties.
The attacks are the latest in a series in the volatile Central Asian state, which is a key US ally in the region.
The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), which is considered a terrorist organization by the United States and has staged previous deadly attacks in the republic, claimed responsibility for the attacks, according to an Islamist Internet site.
“A group of young Muslims from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan carried out martyrdom operations today against the embassies of America and Israel and the office of the prosecutor general, which started a few days ago to try several brethren from the group,” the statement said.
State television said two people were killed and nine others injured, with two of them hospitalized in serious condition.
Interfax quoted an identified source as saying that eight people had been killed outside the US compound, four policemen guarding the building and four civilians. The report could not be confirmed.
Separately, a nurse said on condition of anonymity that at least five bodies had been brought to her hospital.
“An explosion caused either by a bomb or a suicide bomber at the entrance to the embassy killed two local employees of the embassy,” Israel’s ambassador to Uzbekistan, Zwi Cohen, told Israeli public radio.
“There were four of us Israeli diplomats in the embassy at the time of the blast and we are all safe and sound.
“All Israelis who are in Tashkent are also safe and sound — we know exactly where they are and have contacted them to tell them to stay at home until further instructions,” he added.
The US embassy said in a statement that none of their staff was hurt.
Another blast went off when a bomber walked inside the hall of the general prosecutor’s office headquarters, injuring two guards and two officials, spokeswoman Svetlana Artikova told AFP.
All traffic in and out of this city of 2.5 million people was cut off and security stepped up as police hunted for people who may have masterminded the strikes.
Uzbek President Islam Karimov — who has cracked down on the opposition and tried to stamp out all forms of Islamic activity in the Muslim state — cut short his vacation in Crimea, on the Black Sea, to oversee the investigation.
A series of terror strikes struck Uzbekistan in late March, with at least 47 people killed in attacks sparked by Muslims dissatisfied with the country’s leadership.
Uzbekistan blamed those attacks on Islamic extremists and closed its borders to all but freight, saying the measure was needed to keep more extremists from getting in.
The IMU is a radical group that aimed to establish an Islamic state in the Ferghana Valley, which straddles Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, and was driven to Afghanistan by Karamu’s regime.
Most of the IMU was thought to have been decimated during the US campaign in Afghanistan following the September 11, 2001 attacks.
Fifteen people are now standing trial in connection with the March raids.
One Western diplomat in Tashkent said Friday’s attacks were staged to focus attention on the trials and prosecution of Muslims in the republic.
“I think there is only one connection — it is with the terrorist trials,” the diplomat said.
“It is a communication strategy to draw attention of the international community to the trials and what is going on here in Uzbekistan,” the diplomat said.
Rights groups said Karimov’s crackdown on Islamists have on escalated inter-ethnic and religious tensions in the republic.
“The past seven years have been marked by massive repressions against the opposition,” said Vitaly Ponomaryov of the Memorial human rights group in Moscow.
“These attacks will be very useful for the government to press on with this campaign,” he said.