Under Pressure, Uzbek President Raises Death Toll From Clashes

By C. J. CHIVERS

New York Times

May 18, 2005

KARASU, Uzbekistan, May 17 - Uzbekistan acknowledged Tuesday that its crackdown last week on an antigovernment demonstration and a prison break had been far more violent than it previously described, saying 169 people had been killed, including 32 government troops.

President Islam A. Karimov said Saturday that only 10 soldiers and a larger but unspecified number of "rebels" had been killed.

Despite the big increase in the casualty figures, announced at a news conference in Tashkent by Mr. Karimov and Prosecutor General Rashid Kadyrov, the government's total still was far below the estimates of survivors and witnesses, who have put the death toll in the hundreds.

One opposition party, for example, said Tuesday that it had compiled a list of 745 dead.

While Mr. Karimov and Mr. Kadyrov offered a more complete picture of the disorder than before, they also insisted that government troops had not deliberately fired on or killed any civilians. Their assertion contradicted the accounts of many survivors, who have said troops and armored vehicles rushed a public square in the northeastern city of Andijon and fired indiscriminately.

International pressure and a measure of internal dissent were mounting against Mr. Karimov and his authoritarian government, even as Russia and China announced their support. Each has been trying to lure the Uzbek leader closer to its sphere of influence.

The revised casualty figures followed statements of concern and criticism from the European Union, Britain and France and from the United States, which maintains a major military base in Uzbekistan, shares intelligence with it on counterterrorism and has helped train and equip the Uzbek military and security forces.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the Bush administration had raised its concerns about the crackdown on dissidents with the Uzbek government.

"Nobody is asking any government to deal with terrorists," she said Tuesday evening at a news conference in Washington. "That's not the issue. The issue, though, is that it is a society that needs openness, it needs to reform, and again, I think if you look at the record, we have raised that with the government of Karimov for quite some time."

Ms. Rice said President Bush's support for democracy and openness was "without regard to what else might be going on."

At least one member of a Central Asian government said international reaction had been delayed and insufficient. "I'm very disappointed that it took the United States three days to condemn the massacre," said Balbak Tulobayev, an official in the administration of the interim Kyrgyz president, Kurmanbek Bakiyev. "Only the Americans can help the Uzbek people against this tyrant."

The violence began Thursday night when armed men and demonstrators protesting what they regarded as the rigged trial of 23 businessmen stormed a prison in the Fergana Valley, releasing roughly 2,000 prisoners and taking government soldiers hostage.

Soon thousands of demonstrators were mingling among the escapees in Andijon, the regional capital, protesting Uzbekistan's endemic poverty, corruption and repression, survivors said.

The rally, said by witnesses to include thousands of demonstrators, was a rare open challenge to the government, which has been widely criticized for years for the persecution of political opponents, the suppression of freedom of expression and worship and the use of torture.

Mr. Karimov has said the violence and public actions were planned by Islamic extremists and coordinated from outside Uzbekistan, a characterization that survivors have said is an argument of convenience to justify the crackdown.

The two sides ultimately clashed on Friday, witnesses said, when troops moved on the central square in Andijon to disperse the crowds, and a battle began. There were then reports that Uzbek refugees had been shot at as they moved northward to the border with Kyrgyzstan on Saturday.

Hundreds of Uzbeks fleeing the violence have sought shelter in Kyrgyzstan. A United Nations official said 490 refugees had registered for asylum so far.

In Bishkek, the Kyrgyz capital, where the press and public opinion have been largely supportive of the refugees, the government has not announced whether it will let them settle permanently in Kyrgyzstan or send them back.

Roza Otunbayeva, the Kyrgyz foreign minister, said in a telephone interview that talks were under way between the countries. She said the Uzbek government had not asked for the return of the refugees, nor as yet for the return of the 13 among them who she said had been freed from the prison in Andijon.

In Tashkent, the Uzbek capital, a small opposition group, the Free Peasants Party, presented its own challenge to the revised official version, saying its representatives in the Andijon area had compiled a list of 745 dead, including many people who had been shot in the head in a manner that suggested execution.

"We want to know the truth," Nigara Khidoyutova, the party leader, said in a telephone interview. She said the list would be made public as soon as Wednesday.

The dead include many men between the ages of 18 and 24, she said, adding that she had not yet been given a precise breakdown by sex.

Mr. Karimov, who angrily said he had been compelled to appear on Tuesday by his disgust at what he called false reporting by journalists, survivors and his opponents, dismissed Ms. Khidoyutova's tally as "fantasy."

"There is not one world leader who would shoot at an unarmed populace," he said. "I consider this a tragedy for Uzbekistan. Our people have died."

He said that he felt pain no less than that of parents who had lost children, but that he was also very proud that stability was returning to Andijon. "In Andijon today there is full order," he said.

While public pressure on him appeared to increase, his security forces tightened their hold on the Fergana Valley, an overwhelmingly Muslim region that has long brewed opposition to the Uzbek government. This area, bordering a section of Kyrgyzstan that mounted a successful uprising in March against Askar Akayev, then the Kyrgryz president, is all but closed to foreigners now.

At the border point at Dostuk, near the Kyrgyz city of Osh, all vehicle traffic has been closed down since Friday, and an Uzbek sergeant supervising teams of helmeted guards on Tuesday said that even foreigners with visas were not allowed into the area.

But the Uzbek government's control of its territory was not complete. Here in Karasu, a border village of 28,000, residents rose up against the police on Saturday, forcing them to withdraw.

The situation is exceptionally strange for Uzbekistan, long known for its omnipresent police and informants, and its leader's iron rule. For the moment it has become possible to simply walk across a bridge and enter an Uzbek village unchallenged. Uzbek border guards are nowhere in sight. Uniformed police are gone; residents said they had withdrawn with their weapons as unrest grew over the weekend.

C. J. Chivers reported from Osh and Dostuk, Kyrgyzstan, and Karasu, Uzbekistan, for this article. Ethan Wilensky-Lanford contributed reporting from eastern Uzbekistan and Karadariya, Kyrgyzstan; Yola Monakhov from Tashkent; and Christopher Pala from Bishkek.