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Uzbekistan still tense, reports of more deaths

An Uzbek opposition leader said Tuesday that her party had compiled a list of 745 people killed by government troops in Uzbekistan.
Armed Uzbek soldier patrols in centre of town of Andizhan in eastern Uzbekistan
An Uzbek soldier patrols Monday in Andizhan, a town where as many as 500 people reportedly were killed last Friday.Shamil Zhumatov / Reuters
/ Source: The Associated Press

An Uzbek opposition leader said Tuesday that her party had compiled a list of 745 people killed by government troops in Uzbekistan.

Nigara Khidoyatova, the head of the Free Peasants party, said that government soldiers killed 542 people in Andijan and 203 people in Pakhtabad, another city in the Fergana Valley.

Khidoyatova said her party arrived at the figure by speaking to relatives of those killed and that the count is still continuing.

Gunfire rang out Monday in Andijan, the eastern city where Uzbek security forces fired on protesters last week, further threatening the stability of the government in this key U.S. ally in Central Asia.

The clashes in the region bordering Kyrgyzstan were the worst since Uzbekistan gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. If the reports of more than 700 deaths since Friday hold true and if Uzbek forces were behind the killing — as most reports indicate, it would be some of the worst state-inspired bloodshed since the massacre of protesters in China’s Tiananmen Square in 1989.

President Islam Karimov’s government has denied opening fire on demonstrators as witnesses have claimed, instead blaming Islamic extremists for the violence. The authoritarian government has restricted access for reporters in the affected areas.

New report of demonstrator deaths
Saidjahon Zaynabitdinov, head of the local Appeal human rights advocacy group, said Monday that government troops killed about 200 demonstrators Saturday in Pakhtabad, about 20 miles northeast of Andijan. There was no independent confirmation of his claim.

That violence would have come a day after some 500 people reportedly were killed in Andijan — Uzbekistan’s fourth-largest city — when government troops put down a prison uprising by alleged Islamic militants and citizens protesting dire economic conditions.

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 U.S. authorities have only called on both sides to work out their differences peacefully.

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw on Monday condemned the violent crackdown and demanded that journalists, the Red Cross and ambassadors be given access to the affected areas.

Britain ‘very concerned’
“We remain very concerned about the accounts we have received about troops opening fire on civilians in Andijan,” Straw said in London. “This plainly cannot be justified.”

Gunfire continued through the night in Andijan. Residents said government troops were fighting militants in an outlying district, but that claim could not be confirmed.

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

Troops and armored personnel carriers formed a tight circle around the city center, where the local administration building — at the center of Friday’s violence — was on fire late Sunday.

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

“The people now are more afraid of government troops than of any so-called militants,” Zaynabitdinov told Associated Press Television News.

Prosecutor General’s office spokeswoman Svetlana Artikova said Monday her office had launched a criminal investigation against those detained on charges of staging riots in Andijan. She refused to comment on the number of people arrested.

Troops reported in another city
A U.N. official said on condition of anonymity that government troops were concentrated Monday near the city of Namangan, the site of the regional airport and a major transport hub in the Fergana Valley. Namangan also is the birthplace of Juma Namangani, the leader of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, a Taliban-allied group that was fighting to establish an Islamic state in the valley.

Namangani was believed to have been killed in Afghanistan in 2001 or 2002, but recent reports in the valley suggest he may still be alive.

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

Kyrgyz border guards spokeswoman Gulmira Borubayeva said 150 Uzbek citizens tried to cross the border near the Uzbek village of Ayim late Sunday, but Kyrgyz border guards turned them back because they tried to bypass existing crossings.

In another border community, Korasuv, an estimated 5,000 people went on a rampage Saturday and forced authorities to restore a bridge across a river marking the eastern border with Kyrgyzstan.

Thousands of terrified refugees converged on a border crossing at the village of Barash, about 30 miles north of Andijan. More than 500 made it to Kyrgyzstan, setting up a tent camp in a field just across the border.

A U.N. refugee agency team that inspected the camp in the Suzak region of Kyrgyzstan said most of the 560 Uzbeks who arrived there Saturday were men. The UNHCR said 18 of them were wounded.

Borubayeva said Monday that 537 Uzbek residents had crossed the border seeking help.

Karimov, viewed as one of the most authoritarian leaders still in control of a former Soviet republic, cut his political teeth under the old communist system which brooked no civil disobedience. Before the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991, many regional leaders had ordered military or police attacks against their own people when they massed in protest in places like Georgia, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan.