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Terror no stranger to Afghanistan's neighbor Uzbekistan

Alessio Vinci
Alessio Vinci  

TASHKENT, Uzbekistan (CNN) – Hoping to bolster an international coalition against terrorism, U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld this week will visit a number of nations in the Middle East and Central Asia.

The predominantly Islamic states include a strategic neighbor to the north of Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, from where CNN correspondent Alessio Vinci filed the following report on Wednesday.

VINCI: Uzbekistan, Central Asia's most populous nation …has been fighting its own war against what it calls terrorism for a decade. A turning point in that struggle came in February 1999 when a series of car bombs rocked the capital, Tashkent, killing 16 people, injuring many more. The president, Islam Karimov, said the attacks were an assassination attempt against him and blamed Islamic fundamentalists.

President Karimov says he is ready to help the U.S. fight against terrorism, but, he says, he will not take the battle to the Taliban in Afghanistan for fear of reprisals. His own war against terrorism began years ago and it is still ongoing.

Miniskirts and veils

Militants of Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, or IMU, have openly declared their intent to overthrow Karimov and install a religious state. The IMU has been on Washington's list of terrorist organizations since last year and is linked to Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda terror network.

In his attempt to stem the spread of extremism, Karimov has maintained a totalitarian secular state banning religious political parties. The country's 90 percent Muslim population is allowed to pray only at government sanctioned mosques. And in the streets of Tashkent, there are more women wearing miniskirts than veils.

Ever since the car bombs, people here will tell you their lives have changed. Some say for the better because there is more security and awareness in the streets. People say they feel safer, and no one here wants Uzbekistan to become another Afghanistan. But in this fight against Islamic insurgence, the government jailed thousands, sometimes for just wearing a long beard, a sign of their Islamic faith.

Since Uzbekistan gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, people here, as in other Central Asian states, experienced a religious revival but reject those who link acts of terror to Islam.

"It is a big mistake if one says that religious extremism is Islamic extremism," said one Uzbek man. "Extremism exists in every religion, in Judaism, in Catholicism. Those terrorists use religion as a mask to commit their evil crimes. We are all against this."

As President Karimov ponders his options in the global fight against terrorism, there is widespread public support here to join the U.S.-led coalition.

"We have to do it jointly," he said. "One person cannot do it alone. Our people, our government, the Americans and the British, the whole world must do it jointly."

But there is also hope the fight against terrorism will not give the state one more reason to intensify its crackdown on religious freedom.

Bartering for old air bases

After filing his report, Vinci spoke by videophone with CNN anchor Carol Lin in Atlanta.

LIN: Alessio, I'm just wondering if you know the nature of the discussions between U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Uzbekistan's president? Likely the defense secretary wants to use their former Russian air bases, but as I understand it, the president of Uzbekistan wants guarantees that this is not going to be an extended battle that will be using Uzbekistani ground.

VINCI: That is correct, Carol. And I think the major concern here is that if there were, for example, a 10 or 15 days military campaign against Afghanistan and if an all-out war would break out there, then the United States would not remain engaged in this region for many months to come. And the Uzbekis here are fearing that there could be some reprisals from the IMU or other terrorist groups who have been trying to unseat this government for quite some time now coming from Afghanistan into Uzbekistan.

And therefore, the Uzbekis here are trying very much to make sure that if indeed they will cooperate -- fully cooperate, as the U.S. is requesting, with the U.S.-fight against terrorism, they also want to make sure that the United States and its coalition allies will also protect Uzbekistan if insurgents would come here and try to destabilize the region and indeed this country.


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