- The Washington Times - Monday, March 29, 2004

TASHKENT, Uzbekistan — A series of bombings and attacks linked to Islamic militants, including the first known suicide missions in Uzbekistan, killed 19 persons and injured 26, officials said yesterday in this nation closely allied with Washington in the war on terrorism.

The regime of President Islam Karimov, the former Communist Party boss, had held Islamic extremists in the Central Asian nation in check through brutal policies that forbade political or religious freedom. The last known terrorist attack of this magnitude came in an assassination attempt against Mr. Karimov 1999 that led to the arrests of thousands.

Prosecutor General Rashid Kadyrov said the blasts Sunday and yesterday were connected and aimed at destabilizing Uzbekistan.

Female suicide bombers carried out the blasts at the Chorsu market, the biggest bazaar in Tashkent, near the Children’s World store, and at a nearby bus stop, Mr. Kadyrov said.

Police and intelligence agents closed off the market in the capital’s Old City, a bustling bazaar where the smell of fresh produce and grilled lamb hangs in the air.

A witness who did not give her name said she felt the ground shake during one of the explosions. She said she saw a woman crying over the motionless body of a child.

Mr. Karimov said the attacks had been planned six to eight months in advance and originally had been set to take place before the March 21 Central Asian new year holiday, Navruz. He blamed outsiders.

“As the president, I promise all measures will be taken to stop such terrorist acts,” Mr. Karimov said on state television in a Russian translation of remarks in Uzbek, adding that citizens should remain alert.

Mr. Karimov said several arrests had been made, but gave no details.

The prosecutor general said one suspect had been arrested and that authorities were searching for others, but declined to say how many people might have been involved.

Shortly after the September 11 attacks in the United States, Mr. Karimov allowed Washington to base at least 1,000 troops in his country in advance of the war in Afghanistan. Russian President Vladimir Putin gave tacit approval of the plan.

Mr. Karimov, who ruled Uzbekistan as party leader before the 1991 Soviet collapse and since then as president, has come under sharp criticism by human rights advocates for repressing political and religious freedoms.

Nevertheless, the United States has increased aid dramatically in conjunction with receiving basing rights.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the United States condemned the bombings and offered condolences to families of the victims.

The suicide bombings were the first reported in Uzbekistan. Mr. Kadyrov said the attacks were carried out by Islamic extremists, singling out the banned Hizb-ut-Tahrir group and followers of the strict Wahhabi sect of Islam.

“The character and method of this act is not common to our people. It was probably exported from abroad,” he said.

In London, where Hizb-ut-Tahrir operates openly, the group denied responsibility.

“Hizb-ut-Tahrir does not engage in terrorism, violence or armed struggle,” said spokesman Imran Waheed. “We feel these explosions come at a very opportune moment for the Uzbek regime. … One has to wonder whether the finger of blame should be pointed at the Uzbek regime itself.”

Neighboring Kazakhstan stepped up border security and antiterrorism measures yesterday, said Kenzhebulat Beknazarov, Kazakh National Security Committee spokesman.

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