Terror struck in the streets of Tashkent last week, but you'd never know it from the local media. The attacks were swift and bloody, and scattered across the city, from the Chorsu market near the center to the outer suburbs. Their impact was heightened by the government's near-total news blackout. The biggest firefight took place in the Yalangach district, about 3 km from Uzbek President Islam Karimov's residence. Government officials claim 20 terrorists were cornered and quickly blew themselves up, but locals say the guerrillas were fewer in number, and resisted the police for over six hours until they were killed. In Chorsu market, two female suicide bombers blew themselves up as police assembled for morning parade. By the end of the week, the bombings, shootouts and guerrilla attacks had left at least 44 dead. No one claimed responsibility, but the government immediately blamed "Wahhabis" their catchall term for Islamic militants and in particular, the clandestine Hizb ut-Tahrir (HUT), or Party of Liberation, whose avowed aim is to create a worldwide Islamic caliphate. Senior officials also linked the attacks to al-Qaeda, describing them as retribution for the country's support of the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq.
But to many, the haste in accusing the HUT smacked of political convenience. While the hut is virulently anti-American and anti-Jewish and spurns democracy and human rights, it rejects violence to achieve its aims and denied responsibility for the attacks. And after all, says one Western diplomat in the country, Karimov faces a "tricky period" as the U.S. and international organizations ponder whether his government's dismal human-rights record merits more economic aid. The U.S. State Department calls Uzbekistan an "authoritarian state with limited civil rights." A day after the government fingered the HUT, Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a scathing 300-page report alleging that the Karimov regime's campaign of religious persecution had "resulted in the arrest, torture, public degradation and incarceration in grossly inhumane conditions of an estimated 7,000 people" over the past decade. Most of those arrested were allegedly HUT members.
In many respects, the attacks were not aimed at classic al-Qaeda targets, adding to the skepticism over the government's claims. The attackers ignored American installations, like the Karshi-Khanabad air base that supports U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, and passed over the U.S. embassy. And these assaults were not directed at civilians but specifically focused on Uzbekistan's police force, which is deeply unpopular due to its alleged corruption and brutality.
Western diplomats and independent Uzbek observers say the attacks signal the revival of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), a group that found a safe haven in Afghanistan under the Taliban and allegedly has close links to al-Qaeda. The IMU's main aim: to overthrow Karimov. By focusing on the police, the attackers may have been trying to capitalize on growing popular discontent due to high unemployment, declining standards of living and increased repression.
The IMU was said to have suffered a huge blow when the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in 2001. In fact, an Uzbek who has followed the IMU closely says the group was just "lying low." One of its main founders, Tokhir Yuldashev, found refuge in Pakistan's tribal areas, where he was reportedly injured by Pakistani forces in the recent fighting in South Waziristan. "The key thing," says an Uzbek opposition figure, "is that the IMU has become strong enough to raise its head again."
At the end of the week the Karimov regime was claiming it had "decapitated" the "evil forces." But critics say that the brutal repression of any independent movements and failure to address growing poverty are in fact breeding insurgency. However many guerrillas the government killed last week, they say, chances are that there will be plenty more angry young fighters to take their place.