Asia News and Analysis
Sunday, May 15, 2005 1:17 PM
Uzbeks recoil from bloody confrontation that left ‘many hundreds’ dead
By Peter Boehm in Tashkent, Andrew Osborne in Moscow and Stephen Khan in London
15 May 2005
By a school, near a city square, lay bodies, piled up by the dozen. Next to a memorial to a poet, were yet more, swathed in spattered shrouds. The streets of Andizhan were stained with blood yesterday, and littered with spent bullet cartridges.
Yet amid fears of further violence, hundreds of protesters gathered again, placing six bodies on display from among the scores of people whom witnesses said were killed in fighting. Demonstrators, some in tears, condemned their government for firing on women and children.
This city, in eastern Uzbekistan, is recoiling from a horror that unfolded on Friday. The government, meanwhile, portrayed events as the putting down of an Islamic terrorist attack, and warned foreign reporters to leave. The rest of the country is trying to piece together whatever information it can get hold of.
Broadcasts by foreign TV news channels were cut off on Friday and Uzbekistan’s tightly-controlled state TV channel was dominated yesterday by repeated airings of President Islam Karimov’s news conference at which he gave his version of the violence.
His security forces were shot at in the late afternoon, he said, and therefore had to open fire. According to him, “armed criminals” attacked a police station and army barracks on Thursday night, grabbed assault rifles and went on to release “nearly all prisoners” from a high-security prison in town. Women, children and old men were used as human shields.
Local people do not dispute that there was a jailbreak. Up to 2,000 prisoners fled along with 23 men being held on charges, which they deny, of promoting Muslim extremism. And the accused have huge popular support among this section of the Uzbek population, which has in recent weeks risen in protest against the leadership.
But in Andizhan yesterday, it was being claimed that government forces targeted civilians and protesters who cheered freed inmates.
Lutfulo Shamsudinov, a human rights worker, said: “The security forces used heavy weapons and the fighting lasted for at least half an hour.” Returning to the scene of the violence early yesterday, he saw many bodies, more than three-quarters of them women and children.
Soldiers loaded the bodies on to four lorries and a bus and took them away. Mr Shamsudinov estimates that they took 300 bodies. Other witnesses described hundreds of bodies being loaded on to trucks.
One told reporters, “Many, many dead bodies are stacked up by a school.” An AP reporter saw 30 bodies: all had been shot.
Daniyar Akbarov, 24, who joined the protests yesterday after being freed from the prison during the earlier clashes, said he saw at least 300 people killed. The assault on the prison was launched to free 23 men alleged to be members of Akramia – a group named after its founder, Akram Yuldashev, an Islamic dissident sentenced in 1999 to 17 years in prison for allegedly urging the overthrow of Mr Karimov. The Akramis, though, are considered the backbone of Andizhan’s small business community, providing employment to thousands in the impoverished Fergana Valley, where Islamist sentiment runs high.
Further down the valley, some people believed the government line that terrorists had seized Andizhan. Others, though, were more suspicious and feared that the trouble could spread.
“They are hiding the truth. We know that for sure,” said Lyudmila, 42, a resident of Fergana city. “On Uzbek television, it’s all songs and music.”
But she said she had learnt from an Andizhan resident who was visiting Fergana that shops, markets and schools were closed there.
Kinatkhon Buriyeva, 54, said she saw something on state TV about trouble in Andizhan but added, “I didn’t understand anything.” She said that she heard from other people that some injured had been brought to the Fergana hospital.
“Even though they don’t say anything, we hear things,” she said.
A 20-year-old who gave his name only as Oibek, a resident of the town of Margilan, which was peaceful yesterday, said the people were being starved of information “because the government doesn’t want it to spill over to other regions”.
In tightly controlled Uzbekistan, many people resist telling journalists their full names, apparently fearing incurring displeasure from the Karimov’s authoritarian government.
Barchinoi, 51, another Fergana resident who gave only her first name, asked: “Is war going to come here, too?”
Stability in the region is of particular interest to the US, which has an airbase in Uzbekistan and uses it to mount operations in Afghanistan. President Bush has avoided criticising Mr Karimov and the White House has urged restraint by both sides.
“The people of Uzbekistan want to see a more representative … government. But that should come through peaceful means, not through violence,” spokesman Scott McClellan said on Friday.
Just whose violence was deployed in such a brutal fashion, however, is a matter that may come to haunt the American administration.