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Uzbekistan: Eyewitness Observation of Rail Blast Site Discounts Terrorism Claim

Was an Uzbek railway line the target of terrorism? (Photo: SJSRC Uzbekistan Railways)

A EurasiaNet.org probe into a late-2011 rail bridge explosion in Uzbekistan has found inconsistencies in the official Uzbek assertion that terrorism was behind the mishap. An eyewitness examination of the blast site, located in a remote part Uzbekistan not far from the Uzbek-Tajik frontier, indicates that the incident likely was not the work of terrorists.

The mid-November explosion at a rail bridge severed southern Tajikistan's rail connection to the outside world. After a few days of silence, state-controlled Uzbek media characterized the event as a “terrorist act.” Subsequently, outside observers began casting doubt on Tashkent’s claim, with some asserting that Uzbekistan may have sabotaged its own railway in a twisted attempt to economically punish Tajikistan.

A EurasiaNet.org correspondent recently had an opportunity to visit the region where the blast occurred and make a visual inspection of the damaged bridge. What the correspondent saw raised doubts about the veracity of official Uzbek claims. In addition, government representatives in the region appeared to acknowledge a political motive behind the official version of the blast.

"It's not terrorism," said one state employee, smiling and shaking his head. "You should not ask what it is. It is our secret."

Bordered to the north by dozens of kilometers of desert and scrub, and flanked to the south by the swampy Amu Darya River and the Afghan border, the affected stretch of track is inaccessible to all but a few hundred local villagers—and patrolled by abundant government security personnel. The access road alongside the railway is sealed off at one end by a military barracks and a permanent police checkpoint, and at the other end by the Uzbek-Tajik frontier. Outsiders are not welcome. The only way for a foreigner to visit was to circumvent the security controls with the help of a convincing cover story.

The lack of outside access to the site, combined with the state’s tight control over Uzbekistan’s media environment, likely led Uzbek authorities to believe that they could label the blast an act of terrorism with little fear of independent scrutiny of their claims.

Since the incident, authorities in Tashkent have refused Dushanbe’s offers of assistance to repair the bridge. They likewise haven't commented on when the bridge will become operational again. Hundreds of freight wagons loaded with food and other essentials are reportedly waiting to pass over the damaged rail en route to Tajikistan.

While Tashkent seems to rest behind a wall of silence, local officials are somewhat more talkative. A second state employee in the region, speaking to a EurasiaNet.org correspondent, scoffed at the notion that terrorism was behind the mishap. "It is boring around here," the individual said. "No thieves, no terrorists." When asked about the stricken bridge, the state employee said simply, "It is being repaired."

The EurasiaNet.org correspondent who visited the blast site does not have any formal engineering expertise. The damage to the bridge did not appear to be serious, and shows a level of precision unusual for terrorist attacks. Spanning a culvert located approximately 10 kilometers west of the border town of Gulbahar, the bridge is supported by twelve legs, clustered in four groups of three. The westernmost cluster is damaged, but the railway itself is unharmed. Although the concrete of these three legs has been blown away, the steel supports inside them appear to be intact, albeit a little bent. On each support, concrete is missing in the mid sections and there are scorch marks above and below the damaged areas, all similar in size.

From a brief visual inspection, it appears that the intention of the blast was to cripple the bridge, but not to render it beyond repair.

Given the limited and apparently controlled damage, the explosion seems unlikely to have been the work of terrorists. Moreover, the damage, particularly the scorch marks, seems to belie one explanation reportedly given to the Tajik state railway company by its Uzbek counterpart -- that the incident was caused by a tractor running into the bridge support. It also contradicts a subsequent response to a Tajik parliamentary appeal for information, in which Uzbek rail authorities reportedly blamed their Tajik counterparts for the disruption, saying that the Tajik side was simply refusing to receive the cargo.

When the EurasiaNet.org correspondent visited the site in December, a large portable crane was parked next to the bridge, with three or four rail freight containers and a workmen’s cabin. However, on that day, no actual work was being done on the stricken bridge and the site appeared deserted.

The railway impacted by the blast is a branch line, not a part of the Northern Distribution Network (NDN) that supplies US and NATO troops in Afghanistan, nor a line used to ferry supplies used in the construction of the controversial Rogun Dam in Tajikistan. It is, however, a vital artery for fuel, food and other supplies to impoverished areas of southern Tajikistan, whose remoteness make resupply by road impractical. Prices in these areas have come under strain since the blast, according to UN representatives, making basic foodstuffs unaffordable for an increasing number of ordinary Tajik citizens.

Most analysts who support the theory that Uzbekistan did indeed bomb its own railway cite mounting tensions between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan over latter’s Rogun Dam project as a motive, along with Uzbekistan's desire to muscle Tajikistan out of lucrative NDN contracts, as motivations.

Tashkent is characteristically silent amid the increasing scrutiny of its official claims about the incident. Virtually all Internet pages mentioning the blast are blocked inside the country, and public awareness of the event is low. "I have not heard about this, and I check the business news feeds every day," the Tashkent-based director of an Uzbek rail freight forwarding company commented to EurasiaNet.org on December 21.

Matthew Stourbridge is the pseudonym for a journalist specializing in Central Asian affairs.

Uzbekistan: Eyewitness Observation of Rail Blast Site Discounts Terrorism Claim

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