700 may be dead in Uzbek uprising
THE United States last night stepped up its criticism of Uzbekistan and said it was "deeply disturbed" by reports that troops in Uzbekistan fired on unarmed civilians during a protest in the east of the country, killing up to 700 people.
Britain also spoke out against the Uzbek government’s reported violent repression of a four-day old uprising. Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, said he was "very concerned indeed" about the situation.
Mr Straw said he had received assurances from Uzbekistan’s foreign minister that foreign diplomats will be allowed to visit the scene of the uprising.
"If a visit can take place at which EU ambassadors and journalists are able to see for themselves the situation on the ground, that would very greatly assist," said Mr Straw.
The rebellion in Andijan on Friday, sparked by the trial of 23 Muslim businessmen and blamed by President Islam Karimov on Islamic extremists, was put down by security forces in the bloodiest chapter in the country’s post-Soviet history.
According to witnesses in Andijan, soldiers outside a school gunned down a large crowd, including women, children and 10 police hostages.
"It was a massacre," said a 31-year-old cobbler who witnessed the killing. "This sickening smell of blood, smashed brains, guts, and blood, blood, everywhere. I could not put my feet on a dry spot.
"I saw soldiers killing several wounded with single shots to the head after asking ‘are there any wounded around?’," he said, asking not to be named as he had been detained twice by the security services.
He said he saw about 500 corpses in an account that could not be verified but was corroborated by others.
Human rights activists agree that up to 500 people may have been killed in the uprising.
Reporters for foreign news organisations left the town on Saturday after security services detained them and warned them they were in danger. Although parts of the town remain sealed off, some reporters have since returned.
Saidjahon Zaynabitdinov, head of the local Appeal human rights advocacy group, said yesterday that government troops had killed about 200 more demonstrators on Saturday in Pakhtabad, about 18 miles north-east of Andijan. There was no independent confirmation of his claim.
If the reports of more than 700 deaths since Friday are true and if Uzbek forces were behind the killings - as most reports indicate - the crackdown would be among the most violent in Asia since the massacre of protesters in China’s Tiananmen Square in 1989.
Andijan remained extremely tense yesterday after gunfire continued through the night.
Residents said government troops were fighting militants in Bogishonol, an outlying district of the city, but the claim could not be confirmed.
Troops and armoured personnel carriers formed a circle around the city centre, where the administration building - the focus of Friday’s violence - was on fire. Sandbags used as defences in the fighting dotted the streets.
Men were digging what appeared to be a large common grave under the watch of many Uzbek security service agents.
"The people now are more afraid of government troops than of any so-called militants," Mr Zaynabitdinov said.
He reiterated the protesters’ contention that they were not aiming to overthrow the government, but simply wanted to air their grievances.
"The demonstrators did not have any claims to power. It was just an outpouring of people’s feelings. People were driven out into the streets," he said.
In the capital, Tashkent, human rights activists and opposition politicians laid flowers to commemorate the dead.
They were surrounded by scores of uniformed police and plainclothes security agents, who did not, however, prevent them from talking to reporters.
Participants accused Mr Karimov of giving orders to shoot at the crowd in Andijan - a charge denied by the president, who blamed the violence on Islamic extremists.
"It’s clear that they wouldn’t have opened fire without an order from the top," said Inera Safargaliyeva, the head of the Committee for Freedom of Speech and Expression.
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