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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Uzbek Bombs Spark Crackdown

BUKHARA, Uzbekistan -- A cordon of five Uzbek policemen stood at the entrance to the stunning 16th-century Kalan mosque in the ancient Silk Road city of Bukhara, checking bags and prayer rugs as worshippers streamed in.

Men and boys wearing traditional long, velvet chapan cloaks and black-and-white skullcaps said they had never been searched before.

Braving a wintry morning to celebrate Eid al-Fitr, which marks the end of the Moslem Ramadan month of fasting, they explained in hushed tones that heightened security had been triggered by the so-called "February events" of 1999.

A series of bombs last year in the capital, Tashkent, narrowly missed President Islam Karimov and killed 16. The attack was blamed by the newly re-elected former Communist boss on radical Moslems bent on overthrowing his rule, and shattered Uzbekistan's reputation for stability in a volatile part of the world.

Karimov's reaction has been to crack down hard on suspected plotters. Six have faced the firing squad and human rights groups describe the operation as indiscriminate and brutal. Yet many Moslems support Karimov's stance, saying there is more than one side to Uzbekistan's Islamic revival.

"Karimov is not afraid of Islam, but only of those fundamentalists who teach aggression," the city's spiritual leader, Abdulgafor Razzakov, said in an interview.

"They say that whoever does not believe in their ways should be destroyed. We are also against these people - peace for us is all-important."

Ilyas Shaumarov of the Prosecutor General's Office told reporters recently the banned Islamic Movement, accused of being involved in the Tashkent bombings, had more than 5,000 members, many living in exile.

Shaumarov added that 128 individuals had been prosecuted for their alleged part in the explosions, with warrants out for a further 111. Independent regional experts put the number of arrested last year at up to 5,000.

Political and financial analysts say Karimov's decision to crush the opposition and pursue what they describe as his isolationist economic policies are dangerous. By banning more mainstream nationalist opposition movements, he risks closing off a safety valve of discontent amid deepening poverty. Uzbekistan's average monthly wage is $10. His treatment of suspected radicals may also backfire.

"The stronger the repression against the opposition in Uzbekistan, the harsher may be the reaction from armed Uzbek opponents," said Andrei Grozin, Central Asian analyst at the Moscow-based Institute for Diaspora and Integration.

"If it triggers the reverse reaction, it could cause very serious internal shocks."

But it has brought Uzbekistan closer to Russia, which until recently was often portrayed as an imperialistic bully. Acting Russian President Vladimir Putin and Karimov found a common language during Putin's December visit to Tashkent as prime minister. Both are fighting what they see as a threat from Islamic separatists branded "terrorists."

Should the situation in Central Asia worsen, the support of Moscow's still formidable military machine to contain violence and instability could be vital, political analysts said.

Deep-rooted ethnic and religious divisions across Central Asia, a vast swathe of desert, steppe and mountains bridging Russia to the north with China to the east and Afghanistan and Iran to the south, have set alarm bells ringing.

The outgoing head of the UN Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Norwegian Foreign Minister Knut Vollebaek, said last year the region could face worse conflicts than the Balkans.

The February bombings, followed by an incursion into neighboring state Kyrgyzstan by an armed Islamic group of up to 1,000 from Tajikistan in August, have heightened fears.

But some observers doubt whether large-scale bloodshed would be triggered by extremist Uzbek Moslems.

"I don't see at present that the radical face of Islam is widespread enough to provide the foundation for a mass uprising," said a Western expert on Central Asian affairs.