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Uzbekistan arrests blast suspects

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Uzbekistan Arrests Blast Suspects, Death Toll Now 3
Sat Jul 31, 2004 07:13 AM ET

By Oleg Schedrov
TASHKENT (Reuters) - Police rounded up people suspected of involvement in Friday's bombings near the U.S. and Israeli embassies and the state prosecutor's office in Tashkent, Itar-TASS news agency said Saturday as the death toll rose to three.

It quoted Interior Minister Zakirdzhon Almatov as saying the ministry had identified one of the three suicide bombers who carried out Friday's attack but declined to reveal the bomber's name or say how many suspects had been arrested.

The three coordinated explosions struck the Central Asian city four days after the authoritarian ex-Soviet state, a U.S. ally in the war on terror, put 15 suspected al Qaeda followers on trial for bomb attacks in March that killed nearly 50 people.

President Islam Karimov cut short his holiday in Crimea and returned to Uzbekistan late Friday to head a government commission to investigate the blasts which killed a security guard and a policeman.

The prosecutor's office said another policeman, one of nine people injured in the blasts, died overnight from his wounds.

The blasts sites were sealed off by police in bright green uniforms and helmeted soldiers in full combat gear. The embassies showed almost no visible signs of damage.

The number of police on duty was stepped up outside all countries' embassies and at busy crossroads.

But outside the diplomatic quarter and away from the main thoroughfares, life in Tashkent appeared to be going on as normal.

In contrast, after the March explosions the city seethed with anger at Karimov's hard-line policies and bystanders openly expressed sympathy with those behind the attacks.


"It is weird but this time the explosions did not affect people much," said Vladimir Neradko, an owner of a small shop in the center of Tashkent.

"You see life goes on as before. Maybe because there were few dead, or maybe because people got used to it."

A little-known Islamic group, the Islamic Jihad Group in Uzbekistan, claimed responsibility for the attacks, saying they were a protest against injustice and in support of Palestinian, Iraqi and Afghan fighters.

A statement by the group on a Web site linked the attacks to the March explosions, for which it also claimed responsibility, saying "the trial of many brothers ... was being carried out."

Police corruption, extreme poverty and the lack of a legal political opposition have fostered popular resentment and some have embraced a radical brand of Islam.

Uzbekistan's 26 million people are mostly nominally Muslim, although decades of Soviet atheism has made observance patchy.

Five years ago another Islamic group, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, staged a series of bomb attacks in Tashkent which killed 16 and wounded more than 120 people.

Karimov, who has crushed any challenge to his authority since Soviet times, narrowly escaped assassination in one of the 1999 blasts.

Karimov tolerates only state-sponsored Islam and has cracked down on unauthorized religious or political activity.

Almatov was also quoted by TASS as saying Uzbekistan had increased security measures on its borders and was closely checking everyone who leaves or enters the country.

TASS quoted the head of Tajikistan's committee for state border security, Abdurakhmon Azminov, as saying the country was wary of attempts by militants to cross the border into Tajikistan.

"We are on alert and we are ready to prevent criminals' attempts to hide on our territory," Azimov said.

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