TASHKENT, Uzbekistan – Two women blew themselves up at a children's store and bus stop in the Uzbek capital Monday, the first homicide attacks (search) in this U.S.-allied nation in Central Asia and the finale to 12 hours of mayhem that killed 19 people.
The violence, which included two assaults on police and an explosion at a bomb-making hideaway, also marked the first outbreak of terrorism in this majority Muslim country since the secular government became a staunch U.S. ally after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. Uzbekistan (search) hosts hundreds of U.S. troops at a tightly secured military base near the Afghan border.
President Islam Karimov (search) blamed Islamic extremists and said there had been several arrests for the violence, which wounded 26 people. He said backing likely came from a banned radical group that had never been linked to terrorist acts — Hizb ut-Tahrir, or the Party of Liberation. The group denied responsibility.
"I call on everyone to unite and protect our country from enemies like this, to come forward against them as one fist," Karimov, the country's former Soviet leader who has held power since before Uzbekistan's 1991 independence, said on state-run TV.
The violence continued on Tuesday when several people were reported wounded in an explosion and shootout between police and alleged terrorists outside the capital Tashkent (search).
After Monday's homicide attacks, a man in the hallway at nearby First City Hospital was crying, "Where is my daughter? Is she alive or dead?"
A nurse tried to comfort him before a doctor approached and scolded her, telling her not to give any information to anyone — even victims' relatives. Another government official down the hallway also warned doctors and nurses not to talk.
The homicide bombings, carried out 30 minutes apart Monday morning at a bus stop and Children's World store near the Chorsu bazaar in Tashkent's Old City, killed three policemen and a young child in addition to the two female attackers, Prosecutor-General Rashid Kadyrov said.
An eyewitness, a young woman with dyed blonde hair working at the bazaar who didn't give her name, said she felt the ground shake and then saw a woman crying over the motionless body of a child.
An eerie calm remained over the capital for much of Monday as officials declined to give many details about the attacks, which went unmentioned on state-run TV until evening. Bazaars and shops were closed, and soldiers armed with Kalashnikovs were on guard outside Tashkent's central department store and across the capital.
The tiny opposition, banned by Karimov's authoritarian regime from working openly, feared the bloodshed would deepen a widespread crackdown against dissent and independent Islam that has led to the jailings of thousands and evoked international condemnation.
The U.S. Embassy in Tashkent warned that "other terrorists are believed still at large and may be attempting additional attacks."
"The attacks are yet another example of the importance of continued cooperation against those who would stop at nothing to achieve their misguided goals," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said.
The violence began Sunday night with a blast that killed 10 at a house used by alleged terrorists in the central region of Bukhara, Kadyrov said.
Police found 50 bottles with homemade ingredients for bombs and instructions on how to make them, a Kalashnikov rifle, two pistols, ammunition and extremist Islamic literature, he said.
The two assaults on police took place at a factory Sunday night and a traffic checkpoint early Monday, killing three officers.
One alleged terrorist was arrested Sunday night after police stopped his vehicle and found 10 homemade bombs inside, but another suspect escaped, he said.
Following the homicide attacks, police and intelligence agents closed off the bazaar, one of the biggest in Tashkent, and vans carrying investigators were massed in front of Children's World. Uzbek TV showed a streak of blood painted across the sidewalk in front of the store and spattered on walls inside, with workers sweeping up heaps of shattered glass.
The homicide bombings were the first ever reported in the five Central Asian nations once ruled by the Soviet Union: Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan.
Karimov said the attacks were planned six to eight months in advance and had been originally set to take place around the Central Asian new year holiday Navruz, which falls on March 21, but that heavy security prevented them. The planning and money required to carry out such attacks also indicated they had outside support, he said.
In London, where Hizb ut-Tahrir operates openly, the group denied responsibility for the attacks.
"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."
Uzbek authorities have insisted the group is a breeding ground for terrorists — seeking in vain to have Washington label it a terrorist group — to justify their crackdown on independent Muslims.
Karimov said the attacks also bore similarities to the February 1999 bombings in Tashkent that authorities allege targeted the president and killed 16 people.
Those bombings were blamed on the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, or IMU, which is allied with Al Qaeda and been designated a terror group by the U.S. government. Most IMU members are believed to have been killed in northern Afghanistan by U.S.-led forces in late 2001.
Pakistan said Saturday that it wounded a top IMU leader, Tahir Yuldash, in operations on the Afghan border against Al Qaeda holdouts.
"The IMU has a very effective underground grid in Central Asia, which has not been cracked by any of the governments," said Ahmed Rashid, a Pakistani author who is an expert on extremism in Central Asia. "I don't think you can ignore the timing, that there is a squeeze on the IMU — it makes sense for them to retaliate."
Uzbek Foreign Minister Sadyk Safayev declined to link the Uzbek attacks and the IMU.
Security officials in Kyrgyzstan have insisted Hizb ut-Tahrir is tied to the IMU, but have failed to provide hard evidence.
Uzbekistan is due for a review of its human rights policies to keep receiving U.S. aid. The country failed a similar review last year but President Bush granted Tashkent a national security waiver.
The State Department said in February in its annual human rights report that the Uzbek government was committing "numerous serious abuses," and that between 5,300 and 5,800 people were in prisons for political or religious reasons.