KORASUV, Uzbekistan – The leader of a group of rebels claiming to control this Uzbek border town said Wednesday that he and his supporters intend to build an Islamic state and would fight back if government troops attempt to crush their revolt.
"We will be building an Islamic state here in accordance with the Koran," Bakhtiyor Rakhimov (search) told The Associated Press while leaning down from the back of a horse.
Tense but confident, the bearded 42-year-old farmer, wearing a traditional Uzbek embroidered black-and-white skull cup, snapped his fingers as he gave orders to an assistant. It was unclear how many people he commanded, but there was no sign of any Uzbek government officials in the town of about 20,000.
"The town is in the hands of people. People are tired of slavery," he said as he watched two roads converging at an intersection in Korasuv (search).
However, Uzbek Interior Minister Zakir Almatov (search) shrugged off the militant's claims.
"It's all sheer nonsense, everything is normal there," he said when asked whether the government intends to move against insurgents in Korasuv. "If anything had happened there, I already would have been there."
President Islam Karimov's government has been struggling with fundamentalist Islamic groups since the nation of 25 million gained independence with the 1991 Soviet collapse.
Rakhimov presented an idealistic view of the future in an Islamic state.
"We will turn this land into gardens," he said. "If I turn this land into a good place, if everybody here will have plenty of food on the table, it will spread further."
"We will work in the fields, we will open the borders with Kyrgyzstan (search) and reach Tajikistan (search), Turkmenistan (search) and the rest of the world," he said, reflecting one of the central ideas of most radical Islamic groups active in the region: the creation of a worldwide Islamic state.
One of the triggers of the uprising in Korasuv was the authorities' closure of the border with Kyrgyzstan two years ago. After Saturday's revolt, town residents restored the bridge spanning a river separating the two countries.
"All decisions will be taken by people at a mosque. There will be rule of Shariah law (search)," Rakhimov said. "Thieves and other criminals will be tried by the people themselves."
Among the groups that promote such ideas, the one that probably has the most followers in formerly Soviet Central Asia is the Hizb-ut-Tarir (search) party, which Uzbek authorities accuse of inspiring a series of terror attacks in the capital, Tashkent (search), and the central city of Bukhara (search) last year that killed more than 50.
Hizb-ut-Tahrir, which claims to reject violence, denied responsibility.
Rakhimov said he and his supporters did not belong to any specific Islamic organization.
"We are just people," he said. "We just follow the Koran."
Asked if he was afraid that government soldiers would try to regain control of Korasuv by force, as they did in Andijan, he said: "They came here today, a few military people. I turned them back."
"Soldiers and police are also sons of this people. We don't have weapons, but if they come and attack us we will fight even with knives."