TASHKENT, Uzbekistan – Terrorists staged a coordinated series of attacks in the central Asian country of Uzbekistan — a key U.S. ally in the War on Terror — killing at least 17 people and two suspected female homicide bombers, Uzbekistan officials said Monday.
The regime of President Islam Karimov (search), the former Communist boss, had held Islamic extremists in the Central Asian in check through brutal policies that forbid political or religious freedom. The last known terrorist attack of this magnitude came in an assassination attempt against Karimov 1999 that led to the arrests of thousands.
Uzbekistan (search) has been a strong supporter of U.S.-led campaign in Afghanistan, and American troops are using a military base at the southern city of Khanabad for operations.
The U.S. Embassy in Tashkent warned in a statement that "other terrorists are believed still at large and may be attempting additional attacks."
It cautioned Americans to be on "highest alert," and closed an embassy office in the center of Tashkent, though the main building remained open.
Prosecutor-General Rashid Kadyrov (search) said the blasts Sunday and Monday were connected and aimed at destabilizing Uzbekistan.
Female homicide 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, 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 when one of the explosions went off. She said she saw a woman crying over the motionless body of a child.
Karimov said the attacks had been planned six to eight months in advance and had been originally 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," Karimov said on state TV in a Russian translation of remarks in Uzbek, adding that citizens should remain alert.
Karimov said several arrests had been made, but gave no details. Kadyrov said one suspect had been arrested and that authorities were searching for others, but declined to say how many people might have been involved.
Fox News analyst Mansoor Ijaz (search) said the attacks had "too many hallmarks of the revised version of Al Qaeda 2.0," referring to the terror group responsible for the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States and suspected in the March 11 train bombings in Madrid.
What the terrorists want to do, Ijaz said, is to sow chaos in countries allied with the United States and to engage U.S. troops in combat.
"This is very calculated," Ijaz said. "They are going step-by-step, country-by-country, making sure they target American allies."
Shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States, Karimov allowed Washington to base at least 1,000 troops in his country in advance of the war in Afghanistan. Russian President Vladimir Putin (search) gave tacit approval of the plan.
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 dramatically increased aid in conjunction with receiving basing rights.
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher (search) said the United States condemned the bombing and offered condolences to familes of the victims.
Attacks Began Sunday Night
Kadyrov said the attacks began Sunday night with a blast that killed 10 people at a house being used by an extremist in the central province of Bukhara, an ancient city on the Silk Road trading route that led from Europe to China. It is home to several Islamic monuments.
There were also two attacks on police Sunday night and early Monday in Tashkent, killing three policemen. The two homicide bombings near the Chorsu bazaar, killed three policemen and a young child, he said.
The homicide bombings were the first ever reported in Uzbekistan. 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," Kadyrov 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."
Uzbekistan sits in the midst of a geographic band of Islamic militancy that stretches from eastern Turkey to western China, including the separatist Russian republic of Chechnya. The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan through Uzbekistan in 1979, fearing a spread of Muslim fundamentalism (search) to its Central Asian republics.
Foreign Minister Sadyk Safayev said the situation in Uzbekistan was stable.
"The terrorists aimed to create panic and chaos, but they didn't manage to do so," Safayev said. He also tied the attacks to ongoing terrorist violence in Iraq.
"Police are a soft target," he said, when asked about why police were targeted. "We see a repeat of that which was tested abroad."
Kadyrov said the materials used in the explosives were similar to those used in a series of bombings in Tashkent in 1999, an alleged assassination attempt against Karimov that was blamed on the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.
After that attack killed 16 people, the government began crackdown on religious extremists. About 7,000 young men deemed political threats were arrested between 1999 and 2001, human rights groups say. The State Department's human rights report on Uzbekistan for 2002 put the number of political prisoners at about 6,500.
Safayev declined to say whether Monday's attack could have been linked to ongoing operations in Pakistan's border regions, in which a top leader of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, Tahir Yuldash, was wounded, according to Pakistani officials.
If the link to Hizb-ut-Tahrir is confirmed, it would mark the first time the group has been implicated directly in a terrorist attack. The group claims to be nonviolent, but Uzbek authorities have insisted it was a breeding ground for terrorists, justifying their crackdown on independent Muslims.
A resident of the city of Bukhara said on condition of anonymity that there were at least two explosions Monday in the Roshtan district, nine miles west of Bukhara. He said they were carried out by suicide bombers and killed several people.
One of the explosions, occurred near a mosque and another near a private house, he said, adding that the area was cordoned off by police and soldiers.
At Tashkent's First City Hospital where Interior Ministry officials said victims were taken, a man in the hallway was crying "Where is my daughter? Is she alive or dead?"
A nurse tried to the comfort him before a doctor scolded her, telling her not to give any information to anyone — even victims' relatives. Another government official down the hall also warned doctors and nurses not to talk.
Information is tightly controlled in Uzbekistan, with no independent media and opposition political parties are banned.
Other bazaars and shops were closed across Tashkent, and soldiers armed with Kalashnikovs stood outside the city's central department store.
The Chorsu bazaar has been the site of frequent protests by religious women against the detentions of their husbands and sons, part of a crackdown on independent Muslims.
Atonazar Arifov, whose opposition Erk party is allowed to exist but cannot participate in elections, said he feared a new crackdown on dissent.
He also said there were suspicions it had been staged. He said Interior Minister Zokijon Almatov had visited Chorsu on Thursday and that was "the start of the whole thing" and that police had been preparing a diversion for a while.
Neighboring Kazakhstan stepped up border security and anti-terrorism measures Monday, said Kenzhebulat Beknazarov, Kazakh National Security Committee spokesman. Kyrgyz border guards also tightened patrols along the Uzbek frontier.
Fox News' Steve Harrigan and The Associated Press contributed to this report.