Gunfire continues in troubled Uzbekistan

Sporadic shooting continued on Monday in an eastern Uzbek city where an uprising sparked a crackdown by security forces that left up to 500 people dead, and a human rights group reported that clashes in another town killed an additional 200.

The spreading unrest in a region bordering Kyrgyzstan — the worst since Uzbekistan gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 — also left 11 people dead in clashes on Sunday in a third town and sparked a rampage by residents in a fourth town on Saturday, witnesses said.

The government of President Islam Karimov has denied opening fire on demonstrators as witnesses have claimed, but the authoritarian government has sought to restrict access for reporters in the affected areas.

If the reports of more than 700 deaths since Friday hold true and if Uzbek forces were behind the killing — as most reports indicate — the crackdown would be among the most violent in Asia since the massacre of protesters in China’s Tiananmen Square in 1989.

Saidjahon Zaynabitdinov, head of the local Appeal human rights advocacy group, said on Monday that government troops had killed about 200 demonstrators on Saturday in Pakhtabad, about 30km north-east of Andijan.

There was no independent confirmation of his claim.

That fighting would have come a day after about 500 people reportedly were killed in Andijan when government troops put down an uprising by alleged Islamic militants and citizens protesting dire economic conditions.

Gunfire continues

Andijan remained extremely tense on Monday after gunfire continued throughout the night. Residents said government troops were fighting militants in Bogishonol, an outlying district of the city, but the claim could not officially be confirmed.

Alexei Volosevich, an Andijan correspondent for the website, said witnesses told him that militants fired at police from the attics of apartment buildings near the city prison and that police eventually killed the assailants. There was no word about police casualties.

Troops and armoured personnel carriers formed a tight circle around the city centre, where the local administration building — at the centre of Friday’s violence — was on fire late on Sunday. Piles of sandbags used as defences in the fighting dotted the streets.

Men were digging what appeared to be a large common grave at a local cemetery under the watch of many Uzbek security service agents.

”It is sheer genocide against the people,” Zaynabitdinov said. ”The people now are more afraid of government troops than of any so-called militants.”

Karimov has blamed Islamic extremists for the violence.

Zaynabitdinov reiterated the protesters’ contention that they were not aiming to overthrow the government, but simply wanted to air their grievances.

”The demonstrators did not have any claims to power. It was just an outpouring of people’s feelings. People were driven out into the streets,” he said.

Criminal investigation

A spokesperson for the Office of the Prosecutor General, Svetlana Artikova, said on Monday that her office has launched a criminal investigation on charges of staging riots in Andijan. She refused to comment on the number of people arrested. No charges have been filed yet.

A United Nations official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said government troops were concentrating on Monday near the city of Namangan, the site of the regional airport and a major transport hub in the Fergana Valley.

Namangan is also the birthplace of Juma Namangani, the leader of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, a Taliban-allied group that was fighting for establishment of an Islamic state in the valley.

Namangani was believed to have been killed in Afghanistan in 2001 or 2002, but reports have recently surfaced in the valley suggesting he is alive.

The violence puts the United States in a difficult position because it relies on Karimov’s government for an air base in the country and anti-terrorism support. So far, US authorities have only called on both sides to work out their differences peacefully.

Bodies in rows

In Andijan on Sunday, about 500 bodies were laid out in rows at the city’s School No 15, according to a respected doctor in the town, seeming to corroborate witness accounts of hundreds killed in the fighting. The doctor, who spoke by telephone on condition she not be named, also said about 2 000 people were wounded. The doctor is widely regarded as knowledgeable about local affairs.

In a separate clash in the border town of Teshiktosh on Sunday, eight government soldiers and three civilians were killed and hundreds of Uzbeks fled into neighbouring Kyrgyzstan, witnesses said.

Kyrgyz border guards spokesperson Gulmira Borubayeva said 150 Uzbek citizens had tried to cross into Kyrgyzstan near the Uzbek village of Ayim late on Sunday, but Kyrgyz border guards didn’t let them in because they tried to enter Kyrgyzstan bypassing existing border crossings.

In another border community, Korasuv, an estimated 5 000 people went on a rampage on Saturday and forced authorities to restore a bridge across a river that marks the border with Kyrgyzstan. Local residents saw the government’s closing of the bridge more than two years ago as a move to deny them access to the better economy and more open politics of Kyrgyzstan.

”It was a popular uprising. There were no terrorists here, just ordinary people,” said Furkat Yuldashev (32), as he stood with other townspeople near the bridge.

”It’s necessary to get this ruler out,” said a 75-year-old man named Umarjon-Aka, dressed in a traditional black robe and dark blue hat. — Sapa-AP

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