Soldiers opened fire on protesters in eastern Uzbekistan on Friday and killed at least three after demonstrators stormed a jail to free 23 men accused of Islamic extremism, witnesses said.
Protesters hit the ground as the soldiers started shooting outside the administration building. An Associated Press reporter saw 10 people lying on the ground, apparently hit. Moments earlier, participants in the rally said three people had been killed.
Soldiers continued shooting as they surrounded approximately 4 000 protesters.
One man could be heard sobbing: ”Oh, my son! He’s dead.”
Outrage over the trial of the 23 defendants exploded into broader unrest, with thousands of people swarming the streets and clashing with police. Earlier in the day, at least nine people were killed and 34 wounded, witnesses and officials said.
Protest leader Kabuljon Parpiyev said as many as 50 people may have been killed over the course of the day. Two of the dead were children, said Sharif Shakirov, a brother of one of the defendants, and he said 30 soldiers were being held hostage because they were shooting at demonstrators.
President Islam Karimov and other top officials rushed to the eastern city of Andijan, where the government insisted it remains in control despite the chaos, though it blocked foreign news reports for its domestic audience.
Andijan is in the volatile Fergana Valley, where Islamist sentiment is high, provoking tensions with the secular government that tolerates only officially approved Muslim observances.
The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which is linked to al-Qaeda and the Taliban and which the United States has put on its list of terrorist groups, fought for establishment of an Islamic state in the valley in the late 1990s.
Concerns are high that Fergana could be a flashpoint for destabilising wide swathes of ex-Soviet Central Asia. The US is using an Uzbek air base far from the valley to support the anti-terror campaign in nearby Afghanistan.
Neighbouring Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan — former Soviet republics like Uzbekistan, which also share the Fergana Valley — sealed their borders.
Uzbeks in recent weeks have shown increasing willingness to challenge their authoritarian leadership in protests, apparently bolstered by the March uprising in neighbouring Kyrgyzstan that drove out President Askar Akayev and by the so-called Orange and Rose revolutions in Ukraine and Georgia.
The trial against 23 Islamic businessmen accused of terror ties and extremism has inspired one of the largest public shows of anger over alleged rights abuses by the government. Parpiyev said the protesters’ main demand was the release from prison of the group’s mentor, Akram Yuldashev. — Sapa-AP