TASHKENT, Uzbekistan, Feb. 27 (UPI) -- As many as 600 members of an Islamist Uzbek group escaped U.S. troops in Afghanistan and found refuge in Pakistan, one guerilla said Thursday.
Mukhiddin Nuritdinov, a member of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, answered journalists' questions from National Security Service lock-up.
Nuritdinov, 42, was born in Namangan, an Uzbek city in the Ferghana valley, considered an Islamic stronghold. In the early 1970s, Nuritdinov was a soldier of the Soviet army. After demobilization he worked as a weaver. At that time he started to study Islam.
In the 1990s Nuritdinov and some his comrades began to rob rich people to "restore justice" and help families of convicted Muslims. A part of the loot is also meant for "fighters for Islam" in neighboring Tajikistan.
After several robberies in 1996, hiding from the Uzbek police Nuritdinov got over to an IMU camp in Tajikistan. He gave evidence of various terrorist activities in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, but claimed he had not killed anybody.
"I knew that I was a member of the IMU," Nuritdinov said.
The IMU, which the U.S. government regards as a terrorist group, is a coalition of Islamic militants from Uzbekistan and other Central Asian countries opposed to Uzbek President Islam Karimov's secular regime. Members of the IMU want to set up an Islamic state in Central Asia.
The group is believed to have been responsible for five car bomb attacks in Tashkent in February 1999 that killed 16 people and wounded more than 100 others.
In his testimony Nuritdinov reported an interesting detail. Russian military men guarded a camp of the IMU in Tajikistan and Slavic pilots conveyed the guerillas from Tajikistan to Afghanistan, according to Nuritdinov.
In 2000, Nuritdinov moved to Afghanistan. He lived in different parts of that country -- in Mazar-i-Sharif, Kabul, Kandahar, and Herat. Nuritdinov claimed he had merely carried out duties of an economic manager, procuring foodstuff for guerillas.
After the beginning of the U.S.-led antiterrorist operation in 2001, Nuritdinov moved from a camp in Pul-i-Khumri, the Baglan province to the Kunduz city where he lived in a house of an Afghan citizen, an ethnic Uzbek. In December 2001 Kunduz was captured by the troops of Kori Nurullo, a warlord of the anti-Taliban coalition. Nuritdinov was arrested and conveyed to a jail of Kabul, the Afghan capital.
Last January, the Afghan government handed over Nuritdinov to the Uzbek law-enforcement agencies.
Nuritdinov said that he realized "all the truth" obviously implying the threat of religious extremism and terrorism.
Nuritdinov is likely to serve some time in prison.
Maksud Mamanov, an investigator of the NSS, said that Nuritdinov was accused of complicity in a crime and was not accused of murder.
An official of the NSS said it had organized the meeting with Nuritdinov through "big public interest in this (terrorism) problem."