Uzbekistan security forces killed 20 suspected militants on Tuesday in clashes near the residence of President Islam Karimov as a fresh wave of violence rocked the Central Asian country.
”We have eliminated 20 people,” said an officer with Uzbek security forces who was involved in the gunfight with the militants, asking that he not be named.
The firefight between police and the militants occurred after two morning blasts in the northeastern outskirts of the capital, Tashkent, which witnesses said may have left several policemen dead.
Tuesday’s violence followed a series of blasts and police shootouts in Tashkent and the ancient city of Bukhara on Monday that killed 19 people and injured 26 others in what officials said were terror strikes.
They were the deadliest attacks in five years in the former Soviet republic, a key United States ally whose hardline leaders have waged a campaign against Islamic insurgents. They were also the first attacks to be carried out by female suicide bombers.
On Tuesday, troops and police swooped into the Kubraisky area just outside Tashkent after militants reportedly set off car bombs at two different police checkpoints in the area, news agencies reported.
After one of the explosions, militants opened fire on the police and witnesses said they saw three bodies lying at the checkpoint shortly after, including one of a police officer.
Security forces then engaged a group of about 20 militants not far from the nearby residence of the Uzbek president, who escaped an assassination attempt by Islamic militants in 1999.
”Sixteen were killed near Karimov’s residence,” the officer said.
The officer said that at least four of the gunmen escaped and barricaded themselves at a nearby house, which security forces surrounded.
After a spectacular hours-long siege and gun battle, the four were killed, the officer said.
”Out of the 20 people killed, there were three women. All of the women were wearing suicide bomber belts and one of them blew herself up,” the officer said.
A witness, Marina, said she saw a female suicide bomber chasing after the security forces.
”I saw a woman chasing after a group of policemen,” she said.
”Then a bus came between them, a policeman shot her in the leg and she exploded.”
Meanwhile another witness described a separate suicide bombing that occurred in the morning at a different location in the Kubraisky area.
”I saw a Daewoo car with a person in it. It was stopped at a checkpoint near the tractor factory by a group of police officers,” the 30-year-old woman said.
”Within a few seconds of them stopping the car, it exploded,” she said. ”It looked like two or three of the police officers died and the others were injured.”
The US embassy in Tashkent had warned on Monday that extremists might be plotting more terror attacks and advised US citizens in the country to be on ”the highest alert”.
In Monday’s attacks, two female suicide bombers killed three policemen, a child and themselves in two separate attacks in Tashkent, while in Bukhara, people allegedly building a bomb accidentally set off an explosion, killing 10 people, officials said.
”These were terrorist acts,” said Prosecutor General Rashid Kadyrov. ”There is reason to believe they were prepared over a long period and coordinated from a center, possibly abroad. All the terror acts are interconnected, according to our preliminary investigation.”
Uzbekistan became a key ally of the US after the September 11 attacks in 2001, opening up its main military base to US troops fighting in neighbouring Afghanistan.
Monday’s attacks were the deadliest since 1999, when a wave of explosions in Tashkent killed 16 people. They were blamed on the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which was then based in Afghanistan under the protection of the since ousted Taliban regime.
Uzbek President Islam Karimov said on Monday the attacks were aimed to ”destabilise the situation in the country and sow anxiety, fear and panic among the people”.
Uzbek officials said they suspected the involvement of Hizbi Tahrir, a radical group that advocates peacefully setting up an Islamic state and is banned across Central Asia.
But in a statement issued in London, the group said it ”denies any involvement whatsoever in today’s explosions”. — Sapa-AFP