- The Washington Times - Friday, March 5, 2004

BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan — This Central Asian nation hosts U.S. troops but it is also a preferred sanctuary for an al Qaeda-linked terrorist group, thanks to loose border controls and widespread corruption, convicted terrorists have said under interrogation.

“Kyrgyzstan has the most favorable conditions to carry out terrorist attacks and for former members of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan to settle down,” Azizbek Karimov said in court documents examined by the Associated Press.

He was sentenced to death in January in neighboring Uzbekistan for involvement in two Kyrgyzstan bombings that killed eight persons.

The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) fought alongside the Taliban and al Qaeda against the U.S.-backed Northern Alliance in Afghanistan in 2001. Labeled a terrorist group by the U.S. government, the IMU was blamed for a series of incursions and kidnappings in Central Asia from 1999 through 2001.

The group, which seeks to overthrow Uzbekistan’s secular government, is believed to have been seriously weakened by the U.S.-led antiterrorist campaign since the September 11, 2001, attacks.

Still, Kyrgyzstan Foreign Minister Askar Aitmatov said this year in Washington that “it is too early to talk about the end of terrorism,” even though the Taliban regime has been forced from power in Afghanistan.

Kyrgyzstan is host to about 1,100 U.S. troops at the main civilian airport near Bishkek, the capital. The Americans support air operations over Afghanistan, about 450 miles to the southwest.

Last year, the Kyrgyz National Security Service arrested three Kyrgyz nationals for reputedly preparing a terrorist attack against the base.

Earlier bomb attacks at a Bishkek market in 2002 and a bank in the southern city of Osh in 2003 were tied to the IMU. Two other Uzbeks — Ilkhom Izatulloyev, 25, and Assadullo Abdullayev, 24 — were tried in Kyrgyzstan for the bombings and sentenced to death with Karimov, 25.

The attackers told authorities they chose those targets because of the high security around their preferred objectives — the U.S. Embassy in Bishkek and a Turkish-owned hotel.

Karimov and Izatulloyev were active members of the IMU and believed to have been under the direct command of the group’s leaders, Kyrgyz officials say. Both lived in Afghanistan and were trained in camps there in 1999-2001until the start of the U.S.-led war on terrorism.

Karimov also trained in Chechnya, where the Russian government has been fighting separatists since the 1990s.

“In our first days in Chechnya, we studied weapons, tactics and topography. We didn’t have any special instructions on explosives but we always asked our instructors about how we could make an explosive,” Karimov said during his interrogation, conducted in May by Uzbek authorities, who gave copies of the transcripts to Kyrgyzstan.

The two countries cooperated closely in the investigation, and the documents are signed by Karimov. However, the United Nations has complained of “systematic” torture in Uzbek jails and the judicial system is closely controlled by the government, which could cast doubts on the veracity of the documents.

Uzbek President Islam Karimov — no relation to the terrorist — has also criticized Kyrgyzstan before for being soft on extremists.

In Kyrgyzstan, Izatulloyev and another accused IMU member — Ilimbek Mamatov, a Kyrgyz who has not been captured — are said to have prepared the bombs used in the two attacks.

They received the explosives from three Kyrgyz National Guard troops also convicted in January, including Mamatov’s brother. The other two were ordered released immediately, after the judge ruled they didn’t know the materials would be used in terrorist attacks.

Karimov and Izatulloyev used fake documents when they traveled separately from Afghanistan to Kyrgyzstan in early 2002. In Kyrgyzstan, they both obtained fake passports provided them by Tuokheti Tursun, another fugitive who is a suspected member of a separatist movement in a majority Muslim region of China that borders Kyrgyzstan.

Karimov said he was detained by border guard officials when he flew to the country in 2002 with a fake passport, but was released after paying a $100 bribe.

Kyrgyzstan has long been criticized by international organizations for its passport system and the low quality of its identity documents, which make it easy to obtain false passports. This year, the government is expected to introduce new identity documents.

However, Kyrgyzstan also enjoys the reputation of being the most open country in formerly Soviet Central Asia, with less restrictive regulations on foreign visitors and liberal visa rules.

Deputy Interior Minister Keneshbek Diushebayev conceded recently that there was corruption among police officers that might have helped terrorists. But he denied Kyrgyz police were to blame for the bombings.

Terrorists “take advantage of our liberal political regime,” Mr. Diushebayev said.

U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Washington is helping Kyrgyzstan with passport reforms to strengthen border security.

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