This week’s outbreak of violence in Uzbekistan is linked to al-Qaida, a top anti-terror official said Thursday — the first time the Uzbek government has directly tied the attacks to the terror network headed by Osama bin Laden.
In the latest bloodshed, a woman blew herself up at a two-story apartment building in the central Bukhara region Thursday, killing a man and critically wounding herself, police said. The blast occurred in the same area as an explosion at an alleged terrorist bomb-making hideaway that killed 10 people Sunday night.
Uzbekistan has closed all border crossings until further notice, including the Friendship Bridge crossing into Afghanistan outside the southern Uzbek city of Termez. Tashkent’s international airport continued to operate.
Ilya Pyagay, Interior Ministry deputy anti-terrorism chief, said operations were continuing to capture suspected terrorists. At least 44 people — mostly alleged terrorists — have died this week in a series of suicide bombings and police shootouts.
“These are Wahhabis who belong to one of the branches of the international al-Qaida terror group,” Pyagay said, referring to the strict strain of Islam in which bin Laden was raised. “These are bandits who planned these attacks long in advance.”
A U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan is “more likely than not” behind the recent violence. The group agrees philosophically with al-Qaida and has contacts with the organization — occasionally cooperating with logistics, training and financing.
“They still pose a threat, even though the group has been weakened” through arrests and other setbacks, the official said.
Days of violece 'part of one chain'
Prosecutor-General spokeswoman Svetlana Artikova said Thursday the events were “all part of one chain.”
The violence that began Sunday is the first unrest to hit this Central Asian nation since it became the United States’ key ally in the region after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, hosting hundreds of U.S. troops at a military base near the Afghan border.
Pyagay said officials were trying to determine the nationality of the 20 alleged terrorists they said died Tuesday. He said many had been carrying false passports in a clash that officers at the scene and witnesses said was sparked after two suicide bombings that killed three police — contradicting official accounts that all 20 blew themselves up.
The events appeared to spark the start of a deeper crackdown on independent Muslims.
Human Rights Watch confirmed six arrests in Tashkent and the surrounding region, and another two women and three children were detained overnight and later released, said Allison Gill, the group’s Uzbekistan researcher. She said none of them appeared to have a connection to the violence.
“The volume of arrests just in the last 24 hours is high,” she said. “It seems (authorities) are using this as a pretext to get people that they wanted anyway.”
A standoff in the capital ended early Thursday when officials said a militant blew himself up. Pyagay said it involved a “lone bandit” and no hostages, although police earlier had said several militants had taken hostages.
Conflicting accounts of standoff
Oleg Bichenov, Tashkent city police anti-terrorism deputy chief, said at the scene that a man who had barricaded himself in a house detonated explosives, killing himself. But one officer at the scene, who would not give his name, said about 20 militants were holding “many” captives, and that special police forces were wary of attacking because of the large number of hostages.
Bichenov declined to explain the discrepancies in accounts of the standoff, which began late Wednesday. Uzbekistan is an authoritarian country where information is strictly controlled, contributing to the confusion.
Dozens of troops and officers and a unit of eight police dogs surrounded the house. Authorities cordoned off a large area around the house and used buses to evacuate neighbors, while soldiers pointed Kalashnikovs at onlookers and shouted at them to move back.
A police major at the scene said the standoff began when a booby trap grenade detonated while a police patrol tried to enter the gate of the house about a half-mile from the Chorsu bazaar, where suicide bombers struck Monday, and that militants took an unknown number of hostages. He refused to give his name.
The Interfax news agency said there was an unknown number of casualties in the grenade blast. Russia’s Channel One television said three people were wounded, and ITAR-Tass said one police officer was lightly injured.
An AP photographer saw a body being transported from the scene Thursday afternoon as soldiers still guarded the area, checking identification documents and only letting residents enter the neighborhood.
Police reportedly arrested at least 30 fugitive militants on Wednesday, but Bichenov declined to confirm how many had been arrested.
“The number will be changing, and I hope it will be going up,” he told AP earlier. “We are continuing to search for suspects and making arrests.”