U.S., Israeli Embassies Attacked in Tashkent

ReutersUzbek investigators examining the scene of the blast at the prosecutor's office Friday.
TASHKENT, Uzbekistan -- Suicide bombers struck the U.S. and Israeli embassies along with the top prosecutor's office, killing three Uzbeks and wounding nine others in nearly simultaneous attacks Friday in the capital of Uzbekistan.

The group behind suicide bombings takes direct orders from al-Qaida, and the attacks were retaliation against Uzbekistan's support of the U.S.-led anti-terror campaign, a source close to Uzbek extremist groups said.

The attacks came as this majority Muslim country is trying 15 suspects allegedly tied to al-Qaida for the wave of violence four months ago that killed 47 people and included the first suicide attacks in Central Asia. The defendants in the trial have said that the U.S. and Israeli embassies were among the targets their group planned to attack.

A group that claimed responsibility for the March-April violence said on an Islamic web site that it was also behind Friday's attacks, which it said were in part carried out because of the trial.

The claim, which could not be verified, was from the Islamic Jihad Group and was signed by "your brother in Bukhara: Mohammed al-Fatteh." Some of the defendants in the trial, which began last Monday, are from the central region of Bukhara.

The assailants Friday targeted some of the most secure buildings in Tashkent, killing two guards at the Israeli Embassy and one at the U.S. Embassy, Uzbek officials said. Another guard was injured at the U.S. Embassy, and seven were injured at the Prosecutor General's Office.

The bombings took place at around 5 p.m., within 10 minutes of each other in locations scattered around this sprawling city of more than 2 million. All three bombers in the attacks were men, Zakirov said, and one had identification indicating he was an Uzbek citizen.

The U.S. Embassy said a suicide bomber detonated a bomb outside its building and that two Uzbek police officers were injured. One of the officers died hours later.

No American or local embassy personnel were hurt, the embassy said, and the only damage visible from afar were black marks scarring the high security walls around the compound.

"The United States deplores this act of terrorist violence," State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said in Washington.

Israeli Ambassador Tzvi Cohen said all Israeli personnel were safe inside the building at the time of the blast there. One of those killed was the ambassador's personal bodyguard, Israel's Channel Two television reported. There was no major damage to the building, also surrounded by tall walls and 24-hour guard.

Israel was sending an investigative team to Uzbekistan, the Israeli Foreign Ministry said.

The attack at the Prosecutor General's Office appeared to cause the most damage, blowing out windows at the entrance, leaving roof panels and lights hanging from the ceiling of its lobby and scattering debris into the street.

Uzbek Interior Minister Zokirjon Almatov said Saturday that authorities had detained a "group of people" on suspicion of involvement in the attacks, but gave no further details, Itar-Tass reported.

Uzbek President Islam Karimov has angered fundamentalist Islamic groups by trying to stem extremism with a harsh crackdown on Muslims who practice outside the country's state-run mosques.

Human rights groups say more than 6,000 people have been jailed since the 1990s.

He has become a key regional U.S. ally in the war on terror and has allowed hundreds of U.S. troops to use a southern air base that was instrumental in ousting Afghanistan's Taliban regime.

The commander of the base at Khanabad said Saturday that troops were monitoring the situation but there were no known threats.

A source close to Uzbek extremist groups said on Saturday that al-Qaida directed and financed the group behind Friday's bombings and that the attacks were retaliation for Uzbekistan's support of the U.S.-led war on terrorism.

The source said on condition of anonymity that the group was based in Pakistan and had been founded by several former fighters from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, an al-Qaida-linked terror group, after they fell out with that movement's leaders.

The account squares with testimony of the 15 suspects on trial for the earlier attacks. Authorities have said that the new extremist group was linked to international terror groups, and that its members were trained in Pakistan by al-Qaida instructors.

David Lewis, project director in Central Asia for the think-tank International Crisis Group, warned that the Uzbek government was not in a good position to tackle terrorism.

He blamed its corrupt security service, limited international support and "a fairly widespread view that much of the terrorism is an indirect result of Karimov's incompetent political and economic policies."