A July 31 article had an incorrect title for Gen. Pervez Musharraf. He is president of Pakistan. (Published 8/2/04)
Three nearly simultaneous explosions ripped through the capital of Uzbekistan late Friday afternoon in apparent suicide attacks outside the heavily guarded U.S. and Israeli embassies and the headquarters of the Uzbek chief prosecutor.
The bombings killed at least two Uzbek security guards employed at the Israeli Embassy in the capital, Tashkent. The violence occurred as a trial began this week for 15 people accused in a wave of attacks in Uzbekistan last spring that killed nearly 50 people, most of them the attackers, in the first known cases of suicide bombings in recent times in Central Asia.
Hours later, in Pakistan, a bomber blew himself up next to a car carrying Pakistan's prime minister-designate, Shaukat Aziz, killing at least six people.
The attacks appeared aimed at two governments that have worked with the United States in the war against terrorism. Pakistan's prime minister, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, has rounded up hundreds of suspected militants and banned some Islamic groups. The Uzbek president, Islam Karimov, has also taken harsh measures against Islamic militant groups at home.
Uzbek state television reported late Friday that the attacks in Tashkent injured nine people, but a presidential aide said later by telephone that five people may have been wounded. Karimov planned to cut short a vacation in Ukraine to return to the capital.
The U.S. Embassy said in a statement that no American personnel or local embassy employees were wounded in the attack, which took place around 5 p.m. Israeli officials also confirmed there were no casualties among their embassy staff. One of the Uzbeks killed was an embassy security guard, and the other was the personal security guard of the Israeli ambassador, the presidential aide said.
"The terrorists wanted to explode themselves inside the buildings, but they were not allowed in," the Uzbek interior minister, Zokirjon Almatov, told the Russian news agency Interfax. At the prosecutor's office, he added, "the terrorist only managed to get as far as the entrance."
"We think the chances are extremely high that it was a suicide bomber," said Mark Sofer, a senior Israeli Foreign Ministry official. He said the two guards were killed near the embassy's entrance and that an Uzbek police officer may also have been killed.
Uzbek authorities sought to blame terrorists connected to al Qaeda for the wave of attacks last spring, arguing that a homegrown group, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, and other Islamic militants inside the country were supported by sources outside the country.
But human rights groups have said that Karimov's authoritarian government used the opportunity to launch a new round of mass arrests against religious Uzbeks and that they have received new allegations of torture in the country's jails since then.
Allison Gill, a researcher for Human Rights Watch, said by telephone from Tashkent that hundreds of people were arrested in the capital region alone after the spring attacks.
The trial of the 15 suspects accused in those attacks opened Monday. All of the defendants offered confessions that included long apologies but few details, raising concerns about whether they had been tortured or coerced, Gill said. The prosecution has so far presented no evidence, she said.
On Thursday, Gill said she watched in the courtroom as one defendant requested the death penalty for himself after confessing to the crime of attending a terrorist training camp for three days in Kazakhstan. Some of the defendants appear to have been accused of links with al Qaeda, while others were accused of belonging to the banned Islamic political party Hizb ut-Tahrir, she said.
"Nothing that would tell you a concrete story of these crimes has emerged," Gill said. "Their testimony seems very, very rehearsed."
In recent years as many as 7,000 Uzbeks have been imprisoned for their religious or political beliefs, according to the State Department and several human rights groups, and Karimov has effectively banned opposition political groups from open activity. Earlier this month, the U.S. government suspended $18 million in military and economic aid to the Uzbek government because it could not certify that any improvements had been made concerning human rights or political freedoms, steps that Karimov has repeatedly promised the United States.
Given the government's heavy control over information, several residents of Tashkent reached by telephone said they doubted it would ever be known who was behind the explosions Friday.
"No one really knows what's going on -- it could be terrorists, it could be IMU, it could be al Qaeda, it could be others. There's no information, and there was none last time," said a foreign resident of Tashkent on condition of anonymity, given the sensitivity of the subject.
Correspondent Molly Moore in Jerusalem contributed to this report.