Asia News and Analysis
Straw condemns Uzbekistan after 500 protesters are killed
Nick Paton Walsh in Moscow and Ewen MacAskill in London
The British government clashed openly with Uzbekistan yesterday over the violent suppression of a protest in the former Soviet republic that the Foreign Office said had left hundreds dead.
In an unusual condemnation of a country routinely described as a loyal ally by both Britain and the US, Jack Straw, the foreign secretary, said yesterday there had been a “clear abuse of human rights”.
The Uzbekistan government, unused to criticism from such a high level, quickly issued a rebuke: “From where has Jack Straw learned that law enforcement had ‘opened fire on demonstrators’ if that did not take place at all.”
The diplomatic collision came as the full scale of the killing in the Uzbek town of Andijan became apparent yesterday when witnesses said up to 500 civilians had been shot dead by troops.
A doctor from Andijan told the Associated Press she had seen 500 bodies laid out outside a school in the east of the town. She said about 2,000 people had been wounded.
Accounts also emerged of the jailbreak on Thursday night which sparked the trouble, in which armed men freed 23 businessmen on trial for alleged “extremism”. A witness said 100 armed men had shot dead 52 prison guards – including two female telephone operators – during the jailbreak. Rustam Iskhakov, a human rights worker in the town, confirmed to the Guardian that the number of dead was “preliminarily about 500".
He said soldiers had walked calmly among unarmed civilians who had been wounded when they opened fire, and shot injured survivors in the forehead.
According to Mr Iskhakov, the largest number of civilian casualties came after troops opened fire on civilians, including women and children, near a college next to the town’s centre. “They shot at us like rabbits,” a boy in his late teens told Reuters.
The Foreign Office, based on information from its embassy in Tashkent, has acknowledged the toll was “in the hundreds rather than dozens”.
In an interview with the BBC’s The World This Weekend yesterday, Mr Straw said: “The situation is very serious, there has been a clear abuse of human rights, a lack of democracy and a lack of openness.”
Mr Straw also called on the Uzbekistan government to allow independent observers, such as the Red Cross, to visit Andijan.
But asked if Britain would support an opposition movement, he said: “It’s for the people to decide on a change of regime, not outsiders.”
In a statement the Uzbek foreign ministry said: “Mr Straw first should better have analysed what happened and only then make such loud statements.”
The stance of the Foreign Office contrasts with the more muted approach of the US. The autocratic Uzbekistan president, Islam Karimov, is seen by Washington as an important ally in its so-called war against terrorism and provides it with a key air base in central Asia.
Mr Karimov is pinning the blame for the violence on the Islamist group, Hizb ut-Tahrir. The White House expressed concern about “terrorist” involvement.
Hizb-ut Tahrir has denied involvement.
Mr Karimov admitted on Saturday that 10 troops had died in the fighting and “many more” protesters, although no official death toll has been released. The presidential press service told RIA Novosti yesterday: “The situation in the Andijan region is calm and under the control of the authorities.”
The website ferghana.ru reported that the city centre was barricaded by 15 armoured vehicles yesterday morning. The website showed pictures of four burned out buildings and some gutted cars in the town. One man, known as Ilhom, told the AP he had seen the bodies of three men killed on Sunday by a soldier who feared they would attack him.
The violence that spread on Saturday night to other towns seemed to have abated last night.
The whereabouts and fate of some of the armed men who stormed the Andijan jail remained unknown. The United Nations high commissioner for refugees told AP that 560 men had crossed into Suzac in Kyrgyzstan and 18 were wounded.
The tougher line from Mr Straw contrasts with a year ago when the Foreign Office suspended then ambassador, Craig Murray, who was outspoken about human rights abuses under Mr Karimov.
Mr Murray expressed scepticism about Mr Straw’s apparent turnaround. Imran Waheed, the media spokesman for Hizb ut-Tahrir in Britain, said: “We have a situation where president Karimov makes Saddam Hussein look like a choirboy but he is in the arms of the west.”