May 14, 2005
ANDIJAN, Uzbekistan —
Thousands of terrified Uzbeks fled for the border Saturday, a day after troops fired on demonstrators demanding more freedom in this tightly controlled former Soviet republic. President Islam Karimov said troops were forced to shoot after demonstrators tried to break through an advancing security cordon.
Witnesses said at least 200 people were killed, while Karimov said 10 government troops and "many more" militants died and at least 100 people were wounded in Friday's fighting in the eastern city of Andijan. Victims' relatives accused the government of killing innocent civilians.
Soldiers loyal to Karimov fired on thousands of demonstrators Friday to put down an uprising that began when armed men freed 2,000 inmates from prison, including suspects on trial for alleged Islamic extremism.
The U.S. State Department expressed concern Friday that those freed included members of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which is on the American list of terror groups.
Hundreds of angry protesters returned Saturday to the square where the shooting occurred, displaying the bodies of six people they said were killed in the fighting. Knots of bystanders watched as men covered other bloodied bodies with white shrouds.
Demonstrators, some with tears in their eyes, condemned the government for firing on women and children.
Karimov spoke by telephone Saturday with Russian President Vladimir Putin, the Kremlin said.
"Both sides expressed concern about the danger of the destabilization of the situation in the Central Asian region," the Kremlin press service said in a statement.
In Washington, the White House urged restraint by both sides.
"The people of Uzbekistan want to see a more representative and democratic government. But that should come through peaceful means, not through violence," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Friday.
About 6,000 Uzbek residents headed Saturday to the border with Kyrgyzstan. Kyrgyz border guards were awaiting a government decision on whether to allow them in, said Gulmira Borubayeva, spokeswoman for Kyrgyzstan's border guard service.
Karimov said Saturday that authorities tried to negotiate a peaceful way out but would not yield to the protesters' demand for freedom for all their followers across the impoverished Fergana Valley. He termed that demand excessive.
"To accept their terms would mean that we are setting a precedent that no other country in the world would accept," Karimov told a news conference in the capital, Tashkent.
He said troops were forced to open fire when demonstrators who seized a government building attempted to break through an advancing line of Uzbek police and soldiers. The Uzbek leader also denied that forces targeted innocent civilians.
"In Uzbekistan, nobody fights against women, children or the elderly," Karimov said.
He also claimed the government offered to bus the demonstrators out of the city and let them keep the weapons they seized in attacks on a police station and military outpost.
But protest leader Kabuljon Parpiyev said Interior Minister Zakir Almatov did not sound willing to negotiate in a Friday phone call.
"He said, 'We don't care if 200, 300 or 400 people die. We have force and we will chuck you out of there anyway,'" Parpiyev quoted Almatov as saying.
No government forces were at the Andijan square early Saturday, but a few blocks away, about 30 soldiers clad in flak jackets and armed with assault rifles stood ready for action. Military trucks loaded with soldiers cruised the streets, and troops backed by armored vehicles surrounded heavily fortified local police headquarters.
Earlier Saturday, soldiers loaded scores of bodies onto four trucks and a bus after blocking friends and relatives from collecting them, witnesses said.
Lutfulo Shamsutdinov, head of the Independent Human Rights Organization of Uzbekistan, said he saw about 200 bodies being loaded onto trucks near the square.
A witness in central Andijan told The Associated Press that "many, many dead bodies are stacked up by a school near the square."
An AP reporter saw at least 30 bodies -- all shot, with at least one having his skull smashed. The streets were stained with blood and littered with spent cartridges.
Daniyar Akbarov, 24, joined the protests Saturday after being freed from the prison during the earlier clashes.
"Our women and children are dying," he said, tearfully beating his chest with his fists. Akbarov said he saw at least 300 people killed.
The focus of the jailbreak was 23 men charged with membership in a group allegedly allied with the outlawed radical Islamic party Hizb-ut-Tahrir, which seeks to create a worldwide Islamic state and has been forced underground throughout most of Central Asia and Russia.
Supporters of the 23 men say they were victims of religious repression by Karimov's secular government.
The men are alleged members of Akramia -- a group named for their founder, Akram Yuldashev, an Islamic dissident sentenced in 1999 to 17 years in prison for allegedly urging the overthrow of Karimov. He has proclaimed his innocence.
Akramis are considered the backbone of Andijan's small business community, running a medical clinic and pharmacy, as well as working as furniture craftsmen, and providing employment to thousands in the Fergana Valley, where Islamist sentiment runs high.
Their trial has inspired one of the largest public shows of anger at the government. In recent weeks, Uzbeks have shown increasing willingness to challenge the leadership in protests, apparently bolstered by the March uprising in Kyrgyzstan that drove out President Askar Akayev, which followed similar ones in Ukraine and Georgia.
Karimov said people from neighboring Kyrgyzstan helped organize the violence in Andijan in hopes of organizing a revolt similar to the one that occurred in their own country.
Almambet Matubraimov, acting President Kurmanbek Bakiyev's representative in southern Kyrgyzstan, vehemently denied that accusation.
"It's not true that Kyrgyz citizens were involved in the events in Andijan. Our people have nothing to do with it. Kyrgyzstan has had nothing to do with it," he said.
Uzbekistan is slightly larger than California and, with 25 million people, is Central Asia's most populous country. It is a minor oil exporter and hosts a U.S. air base to support military operations in neighboring Afghanistan following the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States. But it also is frequently denounced by human rights groups for torture and repression of opposition.
Associated Press reporter Burt Herman in Tashkent contributed to this report.