Kyrgyz official points at Uzbekistan over murder

( Reuters ) - An independent Uzbek journalist who was shot dead in Kyrgyzstan last week was probably killed by attackers who came from neighbouring Uzbekistan, a senior Kyrgyz official said on Monday.

Alisher Saipov, an ethnic Uzbek with Kyrgyz citizenship, was shot three times by unknown gunmen as he left his office in the city of Osh on Oct.24.

Saipov, 26, reported for the U.S.-funded Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and ran an Uzbek language newspaper in which he described human rights abuses in the region.

"It's most likely that the footsteps are coming from Uzbekistan," said Tursunbai Bakir uulu, Kyrgyzstan's ombudsman.

Relations between Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan have long been tense, boiling over into open conflict in the 1990s when hundreds of people died in fighting between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz.

Uzbek officials were not available for comment. The Uzbek embassy in Bishkek also declined to comment.

Saipov, survived by his wife and an infant daughter, often accused Uzbek President Islam Karimov in his stories of allowing human rights violations in his country.

He also wrote about other sensitive issues such as Hizb ut-Tahrir, an underground Islamist group banned in Central Asia and branded as a terrorist organisation. The group, which seeks to unite all Muslims into a pan-Islamic state, says it pursues only peaceful means.

Kyrgyzstan, which hosts a U.S. and a Russian military airbase, is seen as a relatively liberal country. Uzbekistan, by contrast, is criticised in the West for cracking down on freedom of speech and tolerating little dissent.

Bakyt Seyitov, a Kyrgyz Interior Ministry spokesman, said police were working closely with Uzbek security services to investigate the murder. "We are conducting joint operations in the south," he said. "We are sharing information."

A local police spokesman in Osh said police had confiscated files and computers from the editorial of Saipov's newspaper as part of the investigation.

Uzbekistan has in the past accused its smaller neighbour of harbouring what it sees as Islamist extremists seeking to overthrow Karimov's secular rule.

Karimov, in power since 1989, is wary of political developments in Kyrgyzstan where President Kurmanbek Bakiyev came to power on the back of popular protests against his long serving predecessor in 2005.

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