SIMFEROPOL, Ukraine, Oct 26 (Reuters) - Ukraine has detained three men suspected of belonging to an international Islamic militant group after special forces found a cache of explosive materials and detonators, the interior minister said on Monday.
Yuri Lutsenko said the men, Ukrainian citizens from the southern Crimean peninsula, were suspected of belonging to al-Takfir wal-Hijra, which originated in Egypt and is linked with activities in North Africa.
Lutsenko said explosive materials, detonators, a Kalashnikov rifle and cartridges, firearms instruction manuals, and propaganda material propagating extreme Islam were found in seven places.
Pamphlets also linked the men to Hizb-ut-Tahrir, a group that has said it wants to establish a global Islamic caliphate by peaceful means and is well known in Central Asia.
"A network of the extreme Islamic movement al-Takfir wal-Hijra, which is banned by many countries in the world, is spreading in the Crimean territory of Ukraine," Lutsenko told journalists.
"I find it strange that "Revival", a gazette published by Hizb-ut-Tahrir, which is also an Islamic extremist organisation banned by the majority of the world’s countries, is printed freely, especially in Crimea," he added.
He said the authorities had information that the group had condemned to death the leader of the Crimean Tatars — a Muslim Turkic ethnic group which forms a large minority in the region.
The Crimean Tatars, who centuries ago ruled the powerful Crimean Khanate, were deported en masse to Central Asia, mostly Uzbekistan, by Soviet dictator Josef Stalin in 1944 for their perceived disloyalty to Moscow during the Second World War.
Since Ukraine’s independence in 1991, hundreds of thousands of Tatars have returned to Crimea from Central Asia.
Lutsenko linked the authorities’ focus on militant Islamists in Ukraine to Uzbekistan’s fight against Hizb-ut-Tahrir and other groups. Uzbek extremists fought alongside the Taliban in Afghanistan before and during the U.S.-backed war there in 2001.
"Many of the supporters of these organisations are trying to find refuge in other countries, including Ukraine," he said. (Writing by Sabina Zawadzki, editing by Tim Pearce)