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Car Bomb Leaves Tajiks Jumpy

No one knows who was behind Monday’s car bombing – or even whether it was one – but it appears to confirm fears of pre-election trouble.
By Zafar Abdullaev

The dust has settled from an apparent car bomb which killed one person and shook government buildings in the Tajik capital Dushanbe, but the political fallout is yet to become clear. Most seem to believe the explosion had something to do with politics – Tajikistan holds a general election on February 27 – but what exactly, no one knows.

 

The blast happened at 10:20 on the morning of Monday, January 31, outside the ministry for emergency situations. The driver of a Russian-made Volga car was killed in an explosion so powerful that the vehicle was totally destroyed and the wreckage dispersed over a 200-metre radius. Windows of nearby office and apartment blocks were shattered and several other vehicles badly damaged.

 

About 10 people inside the ministry building were hurt, and several of them were taken to hospital suffering blast injuries.

 

A spokesman for the military prosecutor’s office told the media the explosion was a “terrorist act” caused by explosives. They have already identified the dead man, who was driving his own car, as a Dushanbe resident.

 

Police and prosecution officials were soon on the scene, and the investigation was assigned to the ministry of security. Yet even as security officers began picking over the wreckage, a major fire broke out at their own ministry.

 

The security ministry building was evacuated and firemen moved in, but they were unable to save a canteen and conference hall. Officials were quick to say there were no suspicious circumstances and that the fire had started because of an electrical short-circuit.

 

It is not known whether the fire was an accident or whether the two incidents are linked, but political analysts are already predicting an escalation of tension ahead of the February 27 parliamentary election.

 

"The terrorist action and the incident in the security ministry may further heighten the pre-election tension that has already made itself felt because of the removal of a number of opposition leaders from the political scene and the closure of independent newspapers,” said Tursun Kabirov, an independent political analyst.

 

He was referring to cases such as the arrest in Moscow of Tajik Democratic Party leader Mahmadruzi Iskandarov and the closure of the Ruzi Nav and Nerui Sokhan newspapers. “There is no doubt these [latest] incidents are connected with the forthcoming elections, and may be evidence that there is discontent in certain political spheres,” he said.

 

Police and other staff at the interior ministry were put on high alert, and Minister Abdurahim Kakhorov said guards had been stepped up around government buildings

 

But interior ministry officials then appeared to contradict the prosecutor’s statement that the explosion was a terrorist attack. “The car explosion happened as a result of faulty gas equipment in the vehicle,” the ministry said in a media statement. Many vehicles in Tajikistan have been converted to run on gas instead of petrol, and carry pressurised tanks of the fuel.

 

In an interview with IWPR, interior ministry chief of staff General Tohir Normatov said,"Please don’t rush to conclusions about the explosion. It’s too early to say there are any signs of a terrorist attack.”

 

Despite or perhaps because of the contradictory accounts of what had happened, rumour spread like wildfire through the Tajik capital. The scale and diversity of the conspiracy theories gives some flavour of the underlying sense of insecurity in a country which - though peaceful in recent years - experienced a devastating civil war between 1992 and 1997.

 

A source in the Tajik president’s office told IWPR that both the fire and the bomb were designed to upset the signing of a Russian-German commercial contract to develop the giant Rogun dam. Another theory put to IWPR was that the car bomb had something to do with the state-owned bank Amanatbank, whose head office is near the emergencies ministry and whose entire management was recently sacked by President Imomali Rahmonov.

 

Security sources, meanwhile, said they were not ruling out the possibility that Islamic radicals could have carried out the attack. Security ministry investigators are currently checking out whether the driver belonged to an underground group, the most likely suspect being the banned Hizb-ut-Tahrir. This group says it wants to see governments in Central Asia overthrown – although it insists this should be done by non-violent means. Tajikistan’s security services, however, maintain Hizb-ut-Tahrir is linked to al-Qaeda’s international network.

 

But the consensus appears to be that the car bomb, and possibly the fire at the ministry too, are in some way the outward symptom of political turbulence ahead of the election. Most observers believe President Rahmonov’s People’s Democratic Party will win an easy majority in parliament, in part because of obstructions that have been placed in the way of opposition forces such as the Islamic Rebirth Party and Democratic Party.

 

"I wouldn’t rule out the possibility that the explosion and the fire are connected with certain forces wishing to destabilise the situation on the eve of the parliamentary election,” Saifullo Safarov, deputy director of the Centre for Strategic Studies, told IWPR. Although Safarov conceded that it was hard for now to pinpoint exactly which political groupings might be involved, he insisted that “they will not succeed in sowing panic among the public”.

 

Despite the general agreement that “political forces” were at work, none of the analysts interviewed for this article came out clearly in favour of that pro- or anti-government forces were to blame.

 

Instead, many pointed to previous patterns of instability preceding elections. Within two weeks of the last parliamentary election held in 2000, a bus was blown up by explosives, leaving seven dead; and a bomb planted in a car killed the deputy security minister Shamsullo Jabirov and injured another occupant, Dushanbe mayor Mahmadsaid Ubaidulloev.

 

Many ordinary Tajiks look even further back to 1991 and 1992, when a growing confrontation between the opposition and the then government led to instability and ultimately civil war.

 

Memories of more violent days have made Tajikistan residents wary of such incidents.

 

“To be honest, in such an environment I won’t risk going out to vote; I’d rather stay at home that day,” said Malokhat Hasanova, a female doctor who lives in the capital. “You can’t rule out that it [the bomb] could happen again and I’m not certain that my family and I are safe.”

 

Zafar Abdullaev is director of the Avesta news agency in Dushanbe.

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