Troops Open Fire on Protesters in Uzbekistan

By REUTERS

New York Times

May 13, 2005

ANDIZHAN, Uzbekistan (Reuters) - Soldiers opened fire in the Uzbek town of Andizhan on Friday, where thousands of protesters had gathered, killing at least one person.

This correspondent saw a truck full of troops speed with an armored personnel carrier into the center of the town, where the protesters had gathered, some demanding that long-serving President Islam Karimov stand down.

One body could be seen lying on the ground after the shooting.

The firing followed reports by Russian news agencies from Uzbekistan that rebels holding a key government building and police hostages had refused to compromise in negotiations with officials.

They also quoted officials as saying the rebels were holding women and children among the hostages but there was no independent confirmation.

Earlier, nine people were killed in clashes when rebels heading the protest seized the building after breaking comrades out of jail in the city in Uzbekistan's Ferghana Valley, home to millions of impoverished Muslims.

Bodies lay in the street and buildings were ablaze in the eastern city of Andizhan on the border with southern Kyrgyzstan, where violent protests led to a coup only two months ago.

It was the worst unrest to hit the authoritarian ex-Soviet Central Asian state since bombings in the capital Tashkent last year.

More than 3,000 protesters, some calling for Karimov to resign, massed outside the main local government building occupied by the rebels. Four bodies, one of a soldier, lay in pools of blood in the street. A cinema and theater were ablaze.

``The nation has been tortured by the totalitarian regime of President Karimov and by corruption at all levels of the state,'' said one man, addressing the crowd with a loudspeaker. ``The people demand justice, freedom and democracy.''

Russia's Interfax news agency said that Karimov had rushed to the town and had been negotiating with the protesters.

Witnesses said a large group attacked one of the main police stations and a military barracks overnight, seized weapons, and then stormed Andizhan's prison where they freed the inmates before marching on the government building in the town center.

Officials said the rebels, armed with Kalashnikov assault rifles, were pinned down but there was no sign of police or soldiers in their immediate vicinity. A military helicopter circled overhead.

The rebels were holding 10 police officers, their hands bound, inside the building, its floor littered with broken glass. Outside, they were building brick shelters.

``This is the limit. Our relatives started to disappear,'' one rebel leader, who declined to give his name, told Reuters inside the administration building. He said he had been freed from jail. ``We suffered too much, people have been driven to despair, it has to be stopped.''

It was the latest surge of unrest to hit states formerly part of the Soviet Union and follows a coup in March in neighboring Kyrgyzstan.

PROTESTS IN THE CITY

Peaceful protests broke out in the city earlier this week to demand the release of 23 Muslim businessman, whom a human rights group said were facing trumped-up charges over religious extremism.

The Uzbek Foreign Ministry, which denied government buildings had been seized, said nine people had been killed and 34 wounded during an attack on a police station and military unit, and said negotiations were under way with the rebels.

In Tashkent, guards outside the Israeli embassy shot dead a suspected suicide bomber, the Israeli Foreign Ministry said.

Suicide bombers targeted the Israeli and U.S. embassies in Tashkent last year. Washington has a military air base in Uzbekistan and has hailed Karimov as an ally in its war on terror.

Uzbekistan, an impoverished agrarian state of 26 million, has come under criticism from Western human rights groups for the mass jailing of Muslims who do not subscribe to state-sponsored Islam.

The Andizhan rebels demanded Russian mediation to avert further bloodshed.

Kyrgyzstan's border guards said they had closed the border with Uzbekistan. The coup in Kyrgyzstan, which ousted President Askar Akayev, followed ``bloodless revolutions'' in Ukraine and Georgia which installed Western-leaning leaders.

Events in those countries sent chills through other presidential palaces in Central Asia, but Uzbekistan's problems have focused on Islam and poverty.

Karimov's government has jailed thousands of Muslim and political dissidents and human rights groups say its prisons make widespread use of torture.

Karimov has said his hard line is necessary due to the threat of militant Islam, but it has radicalised many Muslims and, combined with widespread poverty and a stagnant economy, fostered resentment, Western diplomats and analysts say.