Asia News and Analysis
Sunday, May 15, 2005 12:53 PM
‘Hundreds killed’ in Uzbekistan violence
Staff and agencies
A human rights campaigner today said that 500 people may have died in violent clashes in Uzbekistan in which government troops fired on protesters to put down an uprising.
The Uzbek president, Islam Karimov, claimed that authorities tried to negotiate a peaceful end to protests, but that troops were forced to open fire when insurgents who had seized a government building attempted to break through an advancing line of police and soldiers.
Mr Karimov blamed Islamic militants for the violence saying that the rebels who seized the state building belonged to the outlawed Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir.
He said 10 police and troops were killed and 100 wounded, but made no mention of dead or wounded among protesters.
But a human rights campaigner in Andijan, Saidzhakhon Zainabitdinov from the Uzbek rights group Appeal, told Reuters by telephone: “The total number of deaths could reach 500 people from both sides.”
Soldiers loyal to Mr Karimov, who has maintained tight control over the Central Asian nation, fired on thousands of demonstrators Friday to put down an uprising that began when armed men freed 2,000 inmates from prison, including suspects on trial for alleged Islamic extremism.
Relatives of the victims today condemned the government, accusing troops of killing innocent civilians. Hundreds of protesters gathered in Andijan placing six bodies on display from among the scores that witnesses said were killed in fighting.
Lutfulo Shamsutdinov, the head of the Independent Human Rights Organisation of Uzbekistan, said he had seen bodies of about 200 victims being loaded onto trucks near the square in the city of Andijan.
Mr Karimov said negotiations with the militants collapsed after they demanded all their followers be released from jails across the Fergana valley, the conservative heartland of Central Asia.
“To accept their terms would mean that we are setting a precedent that no other country in the world would accept,” Mr Karimov said.
He also claimed the government earlier offered the demonstrators free passage out of the city in buses – with their weapons, seized in attacks on a police station and military outpost.
But a protest leader, Kabuljon Parpiyev, said interior minister Zakir Almatov didn’t sound willing to negotiate in a phone call Friday. “He said, ‘We don’t care if 200, 300 or 400 people die. We have force and we will chuck you out of there anyway,’” Mr Parpiyev quoted Mr Almatov as saying.
Earlier, soldiers loaded scores of bodies of those killed onto four trucks and a bus after blocking friends and relatives from collecting them, witnesses said.
A witness in central Andijan told the Associated Press that “many, many dead bodies are stacked up by a school near the square” where the uprising took place.
Daniyar Akbarov, 24, joined the protests after being freed from the prison during the earlier clashes.
“Our women and children are dying,” he said with tears in his eyes, beating his chest with his fists. Mr Akbarov said he had seen at least 300 people killed in the violence.
The city’s hospital was cordoned off and officials could not be reached for casualty figures.
An AP reporter said she saw at least 30 bodies. All had been shot, and at least one had his skull smashed. She said there were large pools of blood and hundreds of spent cartridges on the streets.
A group of foreign journalists was detained earlier today and told to leave the city immediately.
Some 4,000 terrified Uzbek residents fled to the border with neighbouring Kyrgyzstan, seeking asylum. Kyrgyz border guards were awaiting a government decision on whether to allow them in, said Gulmira Borubayeva, a spokeswoman for Kyrgyzstan’s border guard service.
A move to shelter the refugees could badly strain Kyrgyzstan’s relations with Mr Karimov’s government.
Witnesses said that on Friday when a group of about 70 protesters holding hostages at the square waved a white flag, soldiers opened fire.
“What kind of government is this?” asked one witness. “People were raising their hands up in the air showing they were without arms but soldiers were still shooting at them.”