Uzbek rebel hopes to establish Islamic state

Posted in Asia | 19-May-05 | Source: International Herald Tribune

Bakhtiyor Rakhimov
QARASU, Uzbekistan The leader of a group of rebels claiming to control this Uzbek border town said Wednesday that he and his supporters intended to build an Islamic state and were ready to fight if government troops attempted to crush their revolt.

"We will be building an Islamic state here in accordance with the Koran," Bakhtiyor Rakhimov said while on horseback. It was unclear how many people the 42-year-old farmer commanded, but there was no sign of government officials in the town of about 20,000.

"The town is in the hands of people," he said. "People are tired of slavery."

It was unclear how realistic Rakhimov's assertions of an Islamic republic were. But at the very least, they suggested that the turbulence that erupted late last week in Uzbekistan reflected multiple motivations.

In Tashkent, the Uzbek capital, Interior Minister Zakir Almatov shrugged off the militant's claims. "It's all sheer nonsense; everything is normal there," he said about Qarasu. "If anything had happened there, I already would have been there."

Also on Wednesday, the Uzbek government took dozens of foreign diplomats on an organized trip to Andijon, the site of deadly clashes last week between soldiers and protesters, as it sought to downplay the violence that had put the autocratic Central Asian state under international pressure.

About 36 diplomats, including ambassadors from the United States, Britain and France, were taken in a heavily guarded convoy through the streets of the eastern city, where clashes last Friday killed 169 people, according to the government, and at least 745, according to independent witnesses.

The government of President Islam Karimov maintains the clash was a battle between insurgents and law enforcement officers. Numerous witnesses say soldiers who were called to disperse an antigovernment demonstration fired indiscriminately into the crowd.

The uprising in Qarasu began Saturday, a day after government troops crushed the uprising in Andijon, 30 kilometers, or 19 miles, away. Protesters set fire to the police headquarters, a tax office and several traffic police posts, and looted several other government buildings. They also beat several police officers and local officials, forcing them to flee the town.

Karimov attributed the unrest in Andijon to extremist Islamic groups that sought to overthrow his secular government and create an Islamic state.

At the Andijon protest, only social and economic demands could be heard as speakers complained about poverty, unemployment and the government's stifling of private business. They denied having any Islamic agenda.

But observers of the region have long feared that any social unrest could be used by Islamic groups to promote their own goals. Karimov's government has been struggling with fundamentalist Islamic groups since the nation of 25 million gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

Islam initially filled an ideological vacuum after years of Communist rule. Many say Karimov's heavy-handed crackdown on Islamists was responsible for its rapid spread.

His restrictive economic polices created an army of desperately poor youths who became easy targets for recruitment by Islamic groups. Karimov also banned all secular opposition political parties in the early 1990s and jailed or forced into exile their main leaders.

Rakhimov gave his view of the future. "We will turn this land into gardens," he said. "If I turn this land into a good place, if everybody here will have plenty of food on the table, it will spread further."

"We will open the borders with Kyrgyzstan and reach Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and the rest of the world," he said, referring to the creation of a greater Islamic state.

One of the triggers of the uprising in Qarasu was the authorities' closing of the border with Kyrgyzstan two years ago. After the revolt on Saturday, residents restored the bridge spanning a river separating the two countries.

"All decisions will be taken by people at a mosque. There will be rule of Shariah law," Rakhimov said. "Thieves and other criminals will be tried by the people themselves."

Rakhimov said he and his supporters did not belong to any specific Islamic organization. "We just follow the Koran," he said.