Osama bin Laden's lieutenant Juma Namangani, who was fighting to establish a Taliban-style rule in Uzbekistan, was killed at the weekend, either in a battle with Northern Alliance forces or during US air strikes near Kunduz, sources on both sides of the Afghan war said.
The news, if confirmed, is revenge for the West's new ally, Islam Karimov, the President of Uzbekistan, who was nearly assassinated by him just two years ago. But it is unlikely to herald new freedoms for the 25 million people of Uzbekistan, who are trapped within an authoritarian system which Mr Karimov justifies by exaggerating the Islamic fundamentalist threat.
The shadowy Mr Namangani, aged 37, became infamous across former Soviet central Asia. An agriculture student from Namangan, a town deep in the Ferghana Valley, he fought for the Soviet Union in Afghanistan from 1987 to 1989. But on his return, he encountered the militant Islamic beliefs slipping across Ferghana's jigsaw borders, sliced up between Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.
Armed with cash and Korans, Muslim missionaries from Saudi Arabia's Wahabbi sect revived the old Silk Road, and inspired students like Jumaboy Khojiyev, who later took the name Namangani from his home town.
After coming to power in 1992, Mr Karimov forced Mr Namangani to flee Uzbekistan. He joined the tribal and religious war in neighbouring Tajikistan. Later he crossed into Afghanistan, and established contacts in Iran and Pakistan, as he crafted the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU).
Uzbek police believe the IMU was behind a wave of car bombings in February 1999 in Tashkent, the capital, that killed at least 16 people in and around several government locations. Over the past three years, IMU fighters, estimated to number from a few hundred to several thousand, have made repeated incursions from Afghanistan.
The crackdown by Uzbek authorities has been strongest in Namangan, birthplace of the IMU leader and home to perhaps 1,000 of the country's estimated 8,000 political prisoners. However, human rights activists and family members say most of those prisoners are scapegoats and non-violent protesters.Reuse content