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Little Clarity on Tashkent Shootout

Three days after a firefight in the Uzbek capital Tashkent, casualty figures remain confused and the identity of individuals who clashed with police has not been established.

Sources agree that security forces conducting a search as part of a counter-terrorism operation on August 29 were involved in a shootout with a number of armed men near the Kokcha mosque in Tashkent’s historic old town.

Reporting the incident the day it happened, Surat Ikramov, head of the Initiative Group of Human Rights Defenders quoted eyewitnesses as saying between four and six policemen were killed. The Veritas Human Rights Youth Movement, meanwhile, said its sources knew of three dead attackers and police had suffered injuries but no fatalities.

The following day the website, believed to be close to the security services, carried a report from an interior ministry source that two armed individuals were shot dead after resisting police who entered an apartment in the old town.

Semi-official reports on pro-government websites of this kind did not mention casualties among the security forces. Officially, Uzbekistan’s interior ministry and prosecution service did not even acknowledge that there had been an incident.

Accounts gathered by local journalists agree that police came under fire after attempting to search an apartment, and suggest that up to four members of the security forces were taken to hospital with gunshot wounds.

Reinforcements including elite troops and armoured personnel carriers were quickly on the scene and the two-storey block was encircled, with nearby roads sealed off.

A major battle then erupted, at which point two people inside the apartment were killed; it was not clear whether there were more of them.

An eyewitness described hearing a gun-battle lasting 15 to 20 minutes. He was in a teahouse breaking the daytime fast together with other Muslims observing Ramadan. Instructed to stay inside by the security forces, they remained there until the incident was over.

The lack of a definitive account of what happened has unleashed a wave of rumour and speculation in the capital.

Human rights lawyer Ikramov would not comment on the possible identity of the armed men, but sociologist Bahodir Musaev pointed to a possible link with Islamic extremists.

“Political opposition has been crushed so there isn’t any force that can organise people and channel their protests along civilised lines,” he explained. “When there is no political opposition, its place can be filled by quasi-religious extremist groups. And there’s no guarantee these won’t become large-scale and grow into an uprising.”

Uzbekistan, said Musaev, is “caught between the hammer and the anvil of a corrupt and dictatorial regime that tramples on liberties and aggressive, ignorant Islamists who hunger for power”.

The clash in Tashkent follows a number of similar incidents earlier this year.

In late May, a police checkpoint on the outskirts of Khanabad, a town near the city of Andijan, came under attack. A policeman and one of the attackers were wounded in an exchange of fire, and all the assailants got away, said a statement from the Uzbek prosecutor’s office. Later the same day, a suicide bomber killed himself and a policeman in Andijan itself.

At the beginning of August, Uzbek border guards came under fire in the Bahmal district of Jizak region, close to the Tajik frontier.

(NBCentralAsia is an IWPR-funded project to create a multilingual news analysis and comment service for Central Asia, drawing on the expertise of a broad range of political observers across the region. The project ran from August 2006 to September 2007, covering all five regional states. With new funding, the service has resumed, covering Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.)