Tashkent Says Foreign-Trained Militants Died in Clash

Officials say three militants were killed in Tashkent firefight but eyewitnesses believe there were more casualties.

Tashkent Says Foreign-Trained Militants Died in Clash

Officials say three militants were killed in Tashkent firefight but eyewitnesses believe there were more casualties.

Tuesday, 15 September, 2009
In their first official response to last week’s outbreak of violence in the capital Tashkent, the Uzbek authorities have provided more details of the clash between security forces and a group of as yet unidentified armed men.

A September 3 statement from the prosecutor general’s office said three members of a “terrorist group”, which it did not name, were killed and an unspecified number arrested in the course of a police raid in the old town of Tashkent on August 29.

Eyewitness accounts, however, suggest there may have been at least one other fatality.

The official statement said security forces raided an apartment used by an armed group suspected of being behind a number of murders and other crimes.

The three who died had trained in terror camps abroad, and included the group’s leader Shavkat Mahmudov, the prosecution service said, adding that other active members of the group were now under arrest and were in the process of giving confessions.

A police source in Tashkent, who did not want to be identified, suggested that the official version of events – that the entire group had been eliminated or arrested – was not entirely accurate.

“I can say for certain that not all of them were detained on August 29,” he said. “Several of them managed to escape. And the ones who were detained or killed were not the major figures in the group, just small fry.”

At the scene of the incident, bullet-holes still scar the doorway and interior of the two storey apartment block, and the smell of gunpowder lingers in the air.

Many local residents remain fearful of talking about what they saw, but descriptions given by those who were willing to speak tallied with the chain of events set out earlier by local journalists. The latter say that police encountered armed resistance when they entered the suspect apartment. Reinforcements including armoured vehicles were then rushed to the scene, the area around the block was sealed off, and there was an eruption of gunfire.

“First the shooting started, at around half past six. Then the special forces arrived,” said a local taxi driver. Two explosions were heard. Car alarms went off in cars up to half a kilometre away – that was probably grenades.”

The taxi driver said he was told by a policeman that two members of the security forces were killed in the fighting. This allegation has been impossible to firm up from other sources.

He and another local resident said a woman in her late forties living in one of the apartments with two children died, apparently after being caught in the crossfire.

However, an official from the mahalla council – a neighbourhood body that forms the lowest tier of local government in Uzbekistan – insisted there were no casualties among residents of the area, although he could not say whether other people had been killed or injured.

The mahalla official said the armed men involved in the clash were not residents, a claim also made in other eyewitness accounts .

“They ran into the mahalla…. They tried to hide in one apartment after another,” he said. “Then everything was cordoned off, and heavy gunfire broke out. They clearly decided to escape and jumped out from the first floor; there’s a kind of roof there which they got onto and then climbed down. And that’s clearly when they got shot.”

Afterwards, he said, all the residents of this and neighbouring blocks were evacuated and given temporary accommodation overnight so that the security forces could check whether any of the militants were still hiding out.

The authorities have not yet made clear whether they believe the dead and arrested men belonged to a known militant group.

When the BBC’s Uzbek Service sought clarification from the prosecution service on what previous crimes the men were suspected of, it was told they were wanted for two attacks – the murder on July 16 of the deputy head of the Kukaldosh Madrassah, an Islamic college in Tashkent, and the attempted murder of the city’s top Muslim cleric Anvar Qori Tursunov on July 31.

The police source said that based on what he had heard from colleagues involved in the interior ministry’s specialist counter-terrorism division, “It is most likely to be the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.”

Guerrillas from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, IMU, launched raids into Uzbek and Kyrgyz territory in 1999 and 2000, with the declared aim of overthrowing President Islam Karimov’s administration and replacing it with Islamic rule.

Tashkent has since accused the group of involvement in subsequent acts of violence in Uzbekistan.

Driven south with its Taleban allies after western forces entered Afghanistan in late 2001, the main body of the IMU seems to have concentrated in lawless parts of north-western Pakistan in recent years.

The last serious violence ascribed to Islamic groups in Uzbekistan took place in May, when a police checkpoint on the outskirts of Khanabad, near the city of Andijan, came under attack. A policeman and one of the attackers were wounded in an exchange of fire overnight, according to the Uzbek prosecutor’s office. Later the same day, a suicide bomber killed himself and a policeman in Andijan itself.

(Names of interviewees withheld out of concern for their security.)
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