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Uzbekistan Blasts Shake U.S. and Israeli Embassies

The prosecutor general's office is also hit in the triple suicide bombings; two Uzbeks are killed. Attack may be related to trial of Islamic militants.

July 31, 2004|Kim Murphy | Times Staff Writer

MOSCOW — Suicide bombers on Friday struck the U.S. and Israeli embassies in Uzbekistan, killing two local guards and injuring at least nine others in the second wave of attacks this year against a key U.S. ally during the war in Afghanistan.

The prosecutor general's office also was hit in the coordinated afternoon attacks in the capital city of Tashkent. It sustained more damage than either of the embassies, where guards prevented bombers from entering.

The attacks came as 15 Muslim militants linked to the Al Qaeda terrorist network went on trial in a series of bombings and other assaults in March that killed 47 people.

The explosions Friday caused relatively little physical damage but rattled a country in which the U.S. has maintained an air base crucial to the battle against Islamic militants in neighboring Afghanistan.

On a residential side street, the body of an apparent bomber lay near a small crater outside the heavily guarded U.S. Embassy compound. Nearby streets were cordoned off for much of the evening.

"Something exploded with a very loud noise in front of the American Embassy at about 4:30 or 5 p.m.," said a nearby kiosk operator, who gave his name only as Rashid. "For a second, I thought that a nearby building must have collapsed....

"I ran outside and saw that the wind was carrying away the smoke from the explosion. There was a motionless body of a man lying in the street, right in front of the embassy building. This must have been the suicide bomber," Rashid said.

Two police officers guarding the embassy were wounded, he said.

Embassy spokesman David Reinert said no embassy employees were injured.

At the prosecutor general's office, seven people were injured when a suicide bomber detonated an explosive in or near the lobby.

"The foyer of the prosecutor's office used to have snow-white marble walls and tinted windows. It looked very civilized and stylish. Now, it has been turned into a mess -- there is soot everywhere, the walls, ceiling and floor have been damaged ... the tinted windowpanes and doors have been smashed and there is glass all over the floor," Svetlana Artykova, a prosecutor's spokeswoman, said in a telephone interview.

The explosion outside the Israeli Embassy killed an Interior Ministry officer and a National Security officer, the Uzbek Interior Ministry said. The Israeli government said in a statement that Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom had spoken with Ambassador Tzvi Cohen and "expressed his shock at the horrific event." An Israeli investigative team immediately was dispatched to Tashkent.

In Washington, U.S. defense spokesmen said Uzbek forces would investigate the attacks and would be primarily responsible for any military response.

Adam Ereli, a State Department spokesman, said Americans have worked closely with Uzbek troops and security forces in counter-terrorism training and would assist in their investigation.

"We have a very good relationship with Uzbek security forces," Ereli said. "And so we look forward to providing whatever support we can for their investigation."

A group identifying itself as the Islamic Holy War Group in Uzbekistan claimed responsibility on a website for the three coordinated attacks, Associated Press reported.

"A group of young Muslims carried out martyrdom operations that confused the apostate government and its infidel allies of Americans and Jews," the statement said.

The explosions came as 15 suspects went on trial in the March violence that left at least 47 people dead, including 33 militants. Those attacks mainly targeted Uzbek police, who have been responsible for a crackdown on Islamic militants, political opponents and other citizens in this populous, primarily Muslim Central Asian nation.

The U.S. has relied on Uzbek cooperation for basing troops in its fight against remnants of the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan. But increasingly disenchanted with the Uzbek government's record on human rights, the U.S. State Department announced July 13 that it was preparing to cut $18 million in annual military and economic assistance to Uzbekistan.

The U.S. military operation in Afghanistan has been unpopular in Uzbekistan, and militant Islamic groups have expressed public support for the Taliban and Mullah Omar, its leader who is sought by the Americans.

The Islamic Jihad Group, which claimed responsibility for the March attacks, opposes the secular regime in Uzbekistan and has supported calls for establishing a radical Islamic caliphate across Central Asia.

Uzbek President Islam Karimov has imprisoned an estimated 6,000 people on political or religious grounds, many of them not tied to extremist groups, human rights groups say. Torture and miserable prison conditions are "systemic," according to a recent United Nations report, and the U.S. has cited slow progress in electoral reform and media freedom.

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