Asia News and Analysis
Sunday, May 15, 2005 8:10 AM
President Bush’s New Best Friend Slaughters As Many As 200 Civilians In Uzbekistan

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By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service

05/14/05 “Washington Post” — MOSCOW, May 14 — Dozens of civilians were killed when Uzbek government troops opened fire on protesters, many but not all of them unarmed, in the eastern city of Andijan Friday evening. The president of the Central Asian republic defended the use of force Saturday as necessary to put down an uprising that he said was the work of “criminals” and “Islamic radicals.”

At a press conference in the capital Tashkent, President Islam Karimov said Saturday that 10 soldiers were killed on the previous day of violent clashes that ended in widespread bloodshed when troops stormed a central square and government buildings where thousands of protesters had gathered. Karimov said only that “many more” protesters were killed than troops, but he did not provide specific numbers.

Human rights groups said as many as 200 people may have been killed, and local activists said troops removed scores of bodies from the city center early Saturday morning.

The violence was triggered by the prosecution of 23 prominent local businessmen on charges of religious extremism, part of a wider and much-resented government crackdown in this largely Muslim country on all forms of Islam that are not sanctioned by the state. Thousands of people have been swept into government jails where human rights groups say they are subject to torture.

The government began moving additional troops and equipment into the city Saturday, which is now effectively sealed off as roads into the city are blocked. A number of foreign journalists were detained and expelled from the city Saturday; Uzbek state television is providing almost no independent information on events in Andijan and elsewhere in the country.

But residents reached by phone and news reports said hundreds of people continued to protest in Andijan Saturday, and some carried corpses into the central square in the early morning to register their anger at the shooting. As evening fell Saturday, however, the streets began to clear, according to news reports.

The Karimov government seems determined to prevent the kind of spiraling upheaval that that has toppled three post-Soviet governments in the last two years, including in neighboring Kyrgyzstan just six weeks ago. Karimov charged that the violence was organized, in part, by outside forces and that his security agencies had traced phone calls from seized government buildings in Andijan during the demonstrations to Kyrgyzstan and Afghanistan.

Protests spread Saturday to the city of Ilyichevsk, which is 20 miles southeast of Andijan and on the border with Kyrgyzstan. Thousands of Uzbeks, some of them seeking political asylum and some wounded, were attempting to enter Kyrgyzstan, but the government there had not yet decided whether to let them cross.

On the Uzbek side, the protesters destroyed a police vehicle, and there were reports that at least one Uzbek official was taken hostage. There were also unconfirmed reports that a local administration building, a police station and a tax service building were set on fire in Ilyichevsk as people rallied in the city center.

“We need to oust Islam Karimov’s regime with as few losses as possible,” said Mukhammed Salikh, an exiled opposition figure in an interview with Georgian television from Norway. “This is not a rebellion of radicals. This is a rebellion of ordinary people who got tired of the Karimov regime.”

Uzbekistan is a U.S. ally in the war on terrorism, and the American military uses an air base in the country to support operations in neighboring Afghanistan. White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Friday that a “more representative and democratic government should come through peaceful means, not through violence.”

Russian government officials backed Karimov. The Kremlin Web site said President Vladimir Putin is “seriously concerned about the danger of destabilization.”

Karimov said attempts to negotiate a peaceful solution in Andijan proved impossible, and he described the protesters’ demands, including greater religious freedom, as excessive.

“To link these tragic events with the development of democracy is absurd,” Karimov said at the press conference. “The attempts to artificially impose democracy in countries that are far from its standards may result in a third force — radical Muslim groups — benefiting from the situation.”

The 23 businessmen at the center of the crisis are reported to be followers of an Islamic dissident, Akram Yuldashev, who was sentenced to 17 years in prison in 1999 on charges that he called for the overthrow of the government. The trial of the businessmen, which ended this week with a call for lengthy prison sentences, angered many people in the city where the men were major employers. There were also reports that relatives of the men, who had been protesting peacefully outside the courthouse for two months, were also detained after the trial ended this week.

Early Friday morning, supporters of the businessmen, perhaps numbering up to 60 men, raided a military base and seized weapon, according to news reports from the city. They then stormed the prison where the businessmen were being held, freeing them and up to 2,000 other prisoners.

Armed groups then began to roam through the city and engaged in gun battles with local security forces. Residents also began to pour into the central square, mingling with the armed people and demanding an end to government repression and improved economic conditions.

In seized government buildings, protesters held a number of police and security officers hostage.

Around 5.30 p.m. Friday evening, with helicopters buzzing overhead, government troops raced into the square firing from armored personnel carriers. Bodies littered the city center after the assault, according to eyewitness reports.

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