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Wednesday, February 17, 1999 Published at 21:51 GMT

World: Asia-Pacific

'Extremism' behind Uzbek bombs

Six bombs went off at the same time

Religious extremism was to blame for Tuesday's bomb attacks in the Uzbek capital Tashkent, Interior Minister Zokir Jon Almatov has said.

At least 15 people died and more than 150 were injured in a series of bomb blasts in the city. The Itar-Tass news agency said 96 people were still in hospital.

Nobody has claimed responsibility for the attacks, but the authorities said they were an attempt to assassinate President Islam Karimov.

The president linked the blasts to his campaign against alleged Islamic extremists accused of seeking to set up an Islamic state.

Louise Hidalgo: "Interior Minister's statements were the strongest comments yet"
Mr Almatov refused to confirm reports that five people had been detained.

BBC Central Asia Correspondent Louise Hidalgo says the interior minister's comments are the strongest yet linking the attacks to Islamic extremists.

Six almost simultaneous car bomb explosions went off in the city on Tuesday morning. President Karimov has declared Thursday a national day of mourning.

[ image: President Karimov: Will cut off hands of those responsible]
President Karimov: Will cut off hands of those responsible
After the blasts, Mr Karimov immediately went on state television to denounce the perpetrators, saying he would cut off the hands of the people behind the blasts.

He urged people to remain calm and said those responsible would be found and punished.

Border crossings into the country were closed and armed police were patrolling the centre of the capital.

The president called on local authorities to monitor the activity of mosques.

'Well-planned operation'

President Karimov, standing outside the building near where two of the explosions took place said it had been a well-planned operation by those who he said wanted to disrupt the peace in the country.

The BBC's David Jamieson: Four cars exploded simultaneously
Behind him, broken windows and walls blackened by smoke were clearly visible.

Eyewitnesses at the scene of the blasts said people ran from nearby offices with blood pouring from their faces.

Reports from Tashkent said the entire city centre had been closed to traffic after the blasts.

Mr Karimov was arriving at government offices in the city when the car bombs went off. His car sped away immediately.

The Uzbek Government said two men were killed in a shootout that followed the explosion.

Initially, police said they were among the attackers, but officials have since suggested that they were passers-by.

Previous calm

President Karimov's authoritarian government has long been concerned that it might be targeted by Islamic militants in the region, though analysts suggest that the attack could also be linked to the sacking of senior government officials last year.

The Russian president, Boris Yeltsin, has condemned what he called the cynical act of terrorism.

Uzbekistan is the largest Muslim country in Central Asia, where authorities have maintained tight control.

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