Tashkent checkpoint (AP)
An explosion ripped through a district of the Uzbek capital Wednesday evening and caused casualties, according to a report, apparently the latest incident in a wave of terrorist-related violence that has gripped the city.
Interfax news agency reported the blast hit the Sabir-Rakhimovski district, which is in northern Tashkent. Interior Ministry anti-terrorism department deputy chief Ilya Pyagay said that police were carrying out an operation in that neighborhood. He gave no further details.
That area is not far from the scene of fighting Tuesday that officials said left 23 people dead, including three police officers.
A Western security official also said he had been informed of a blast, and that people had seen fire trucks racing to the area. Witnesses also reported seeing police cars speeding through the city center toward the Sabir-Rakhimovski district.
Prosecutor-General spokeswoman Svetlana Artikova, however, said that no new outbreaks of violence had occurred in the city.
Russia’s ITAR-Tass news agency earlier reported that a blast also struck a residential building in the Fergana Valley city of Andijan overnight, citing police sources. The explosion could have been an accident, but police weren’t ruling out terrorism. Officials declined to confirm the report.
The reported Tashkent blast came at the end of a day where police scoured the capital in pursuit of fugitive militants, and reportedly arrested at least 30. A police official said those in custody so far were adherents of the strict Wahhabi Islamic sect, which was believed to have inspired Osama bin Laden, not members of an extremist group President Islam Karimov has implied were behind the attacks.
At least 42 people have been killed in terrorist-related violence that began Sunday in Uzbekistan — the first unrest here since this Central Asian nation became a key U.S. ally in the war on terror.
Oleg Bichenov, Tashkent city police anti-terrorism deputy chief, declined to confirm how many had been arrested so far.
“The number (of the arrested) will be changing, and I hope it will be going up,” he told The Associated Press. “We are continuing to search for suspects and making arrests.”
Earlier, a Western security official in Tashkent told AP on condition of anonymity that police and security officers were looking for five suspects.
Nineteen people were killed and 26 wounded on Sunday and Monday in violence that included the first suicide bombings in this Central Asian nation. On Tuesday, 23 people died as Uzbek forces battled for hours with suspected terrorists, and were struck by two suicide attacks.
All the attacks appeared to target Uzbek authorities.
The U.S. Embassy in Tashkent said no new violence was reported Wednesday in the country. However, the Friendship Bridge linking Uzbekistan to Afghanistan — where access already is strictly controlled — had been closed to all except diplomatic traffic, it said.
An embassy annex office remained closed, although visa operations resumed. Americans were urged to be on “highest alert,” as the situation remained unclear.
Bichenov said those in custody were being questioned at length — but that interrogations so far found that none were members of the Hizb ut-Tahrir extremist group. Instead, he said the suspects were aligned with the Wahhabi sect of Islam.
On Monday, Kadyrov told journalists that religious literature from Hizb ut-Tahrir and the Wahhabi sect had been found at an alleged terrorist bomb-making factory in the central region of Bukhara.
Hizb ut-Tahrir — which claims to disavow violence, while not explicitly ruling it out in its quest to create an Islamic state across the world — has never been linked to any terrorist attacks. Its office in Britain, where the group is allowed to operate openly, denied responsibility for events in Uzbekistan.
Uzbek authorities claim Hizb ut-Tahrir is a breeding ground for terrorists and have sought unsuccessfully to have Washington label it a terrorist group.
The Wahhabi sect is dominant in Saudi Arabia and has attracted many followers across Central Asia and the Caucasus.
U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Tuesday that the United States had no information on who was responsible for the attacks but noted the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan has been the dominant threat in the country.
That terror group was believed to have been decimated in the U.S.-led operations in Afghanistan, and Pakistani forces this month hunting al-Qaida fugitives on the Afghan border said they wounded the IMU’s political leader.
Security remained tighter than usual Wednesday in Tashkent, with soldiers and police searching vehicles at checkpoints. An armored personnel carrier also remained in place on the road leading out of the city toward Karimov’s official residence, near the area of suicide bombings and battles between authorities and suspected militants.
Residents near the area of Tuesday’s fighting said five men escaped, although it wasn’t clear if some of them had been killed at another charred house nearby pockmarked with bullet holes, where residents said four bodies lay in the courtyard.
The Interior Ministry said the fighting Tuesday killed three police and wounded five. It said 20 terror suspects died and that all of them blew themselves up, but that contradicted accounts that government forces killed some of the militants in shootouts.