'They shot us like rabbits'

GRAPHIC eyewitness accounts of the massacre of civilians by troops in the Uzbek town of Andijan emerged yesterday from fleeing refugees.

With human rights organisations reporting a death toll of up to 500 in Friday’s massacre, survivors told of soldiers machine-gunning women, children and their own police comrades.

There were also reports of fighting erupting in a second town, Korasuv, on the Uzbek border with Kyrgyzstan.

The Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, said the situation was "very serious" and criticised the Uzbek government.

Throughout the weekend desperate relatives have been criss-crossing Andijan, checking on hospitals and calling at police stations for news.

Thousands of Uzbeks fled across improvised bridges to safety in neighbouring Kyrgyzstan, telling their stories to relief workers.

Andijan remained under curfew with blood and body parts still visible in the shattered main square.

Friday’s massacre began after the main square was occupied by thousands of opposition demonstrators. Many in the crowd had come along out of curiosity a day after armed rebels took control of the adjacent regional government building.

Without warning, groups of eight-wheeled armoured personnel carriers (APCs) rolled in.

Moving at high speed, one column raced into the square, and soldiers on board began shooting into the crowd.

"They shot at us like rabbits," a boy in his late teens said.

Panic broke out and the crowd scattered. The army units then advanced on a high school occupied by rebels.

Rebels forced captured policemen to leave the school and form a "human shield" in front of the soldiers, but the troops opened fire.

"About ten policemen were pushed ahead of the crowd as hostages," a 35-year-old businessman said.

"‘Don’t shoot! Don’t shoot!’ they begged. But then the APC opened fire from about 150 metres away."

After the killing was over, the main square was littered with bodies and burning cars.

Some soldiers were also shot dead, apparently by rebels barricaded inside the government headquarters.

A human rights campaigner, Saidzhakhon Zaidabitdinov, and doctors have said up to 500 were killed.

One witness described watching soldiers shoot dead several wounded people who had been lying in the square overnight.

"Those wounded who tried to get away were finished with single shots from a Kalashnikov rifle," said the man. "Three or four soldiers were assigned to killing the wounded."

The Uzbek president, Islam Karimov, insisted that no order had been given to fire on the crowd. "I categorically banned the use of physical force against women, children and the elderly," he said.

Mr Karimov blamed the violence on a banned group, Hizb ut-Tahrir, which is campaigning for an Islamic state across central Asia.

Yesterday there was a fresh outbreak of fighting in a second town, Korasuv, on the Krygyz border. Reports in Russia spoke of rebels battling with government forces, and of 5,000 protesters looting and burning official buildings and smashing police cars.

Security forces abandoned the town, and local residents rebuilt a frail metal bridge that the authorities had pulled down which had formerly linked them to Uzbekistan.

Thousands of refugees crossed into Kyrgyzstan at the weekend, where the Red Cross set up a camp for 530 refugees.

Britain called on Uzbekistan to allow the Red Cross and foreign observers into the country to investigate the massacre.

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.

"We have to have immediate transparency about what is going on."

In a letter to Britain’s ambassador to Uzbekistan, the Uzbek government reacted angrily to the Foreign Secretary’s comments.

"How did Mr Jack Straw know that the law enforcement agencies started shooting demonstrators if nothing of this kind ever happened?" the letter said.

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