Uzbek Refugees Ask Kyrgyzstan for Asylum


New York Times

May 21, 2005

KARA DARYA, Kyrgyzstan -- Hundreds of Uzbek refugees appealed for asylum in Kyrgyzstan, saying they fear for their lives if they return to their country, where police rounded up witnesses to a bloody crackdown on dissent in defiance of international calls for a U.N. investigation.

On Friday, the refugees, who are living in tents in this border town, wrote a collective letter to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, begging for protection and urging international pressure on Uzbek President Islam Karimov to improve his human rights record.

But their first hope is Kyrgyzstan, which they are counting on to resist strong pressure from its bigger neighbor to hand them over.

''We are asking the people of Kyrgyzstan to give us political asylum,'' said Shamsutdin Atamatov, 29, one of the 23 businessmen whose trial on charges of religious extremism touched off the May 13 uprising in the eastern Uzbek city of Andijan.

Five of the businessmen, who were freed in a jailbreak that kicked off the revolt, reached this Kyrgyz village after what they described as a terrifying attack on civilians gathered in a town square, followed by a desperate flight from Uzbek forces.

The refugee camp is rife with rumors its residents will be deported. But Kyrgyzstan has granted temporary asylum-seeker status, lasting for 10 days, to all who requested it. Authorities have said they will extend that status if required, said Marie-Helene Verney, a spokeswoman for the U.N. refugee agency in Geneva.

For the refugees, a return to Uzbekistan apparently is out of the question because of fears they would be subject to a new round of repression.

Arrests of people suspected of participating in the uprising continue in Andijan and the capital, Tashkent. Karimov has blamed Islamic militants for the unrest and denies his troops fired on unarmed civilians. Rights activists put the death toll at over 700.

The unrest has spread to Korasuv, another eastern Uzbek town where several hundred residents spilled into the streets Saturday to protest the arrest of their leader.

Protesters held placards urging the government to free Bakhtiyor Rakhimov, a farmer turned rebel leader who told The Associated Press before his arrest that he intended to create an Islamic republic.

Acknowledging the danger of forceful response, Rakhimov's brother Faziljon addressed the crowds, asking protesters to calm down and roll up their posters in an apparent bid to soothe passions and avoid angering authorities.

Rakhimov's followers claimed control of Korasuv last Saturday, inspired by the riots in Andijan, about 20 miles away. They burned government buildings, drove away authorities and rebuilt a bridge leading to a bazaar on the Kyrgyz side of the border. Rakhimov, his 14-year-old son and close associates were arrested before dawn Thursday.

In a sign of concern about the situation in Uzbekistan, a key U.S. ally in the war on terrorism, the U.S. military has scaled back its operations at Karshi-Khanabad air base, which serves as a hub for U.S. special operations in Afghanistan.

''We're a small part of the global war on terror,'' U.S. Air Force Col. Thomas Moore, in charge of flight operations at the base, told AP on Saturday. He said the unrest hasn't affected the base.

Atamatov, one of the prisoners whose escape triggered the first protests, recalled his odyssey from successful businessman to inmate to refugee -- and denied that radical Islam had played any role.

Last June, he said, after three days of brutal interrogation focusing on his business partners, he was charged with religious extremism.

''I told the court that I'm not an extremist,'' said Atamatov, who owned a confectionary factory that employed 23 people and was a sponsor of local children's soccer and karate clubs. ''I asked the judge: How can a man who implements the president's decrees on creating more jobs, on developing sports among children, be an extremist?''

The trial opened in February, and by last week, a sentence was due. The trial had already brought thousands into the streets of Andijan for peaceful protests, and the protest leaders promised massive resistance if the men were convicted.

But the sentence never came. Around midnight on May 12, Atamatov said he heard about 10 shots, then someone opened the door of his prison cell with a crowbar. He and another 11 inmates in the cell came out to the street.

Someone there, whom Atamatov said he didn't know, said: ''Those who want can come with us to the governor's office.'' And so he went, and found himself among thousands of people who demonstrated all day.

Atamatov said government troops shot at them in the morning, killing about a dozen people, and opened fire again about noon, killing a similar number. Two hours later, he said, they took aim from a truck and killed a 5-year-old boy who was running along a street. When his mother ran screaming toward her son, soldiers shot her, too, Atamatov said.

He estimated that 150-200 people died on the square when troops encircled it in late afternoon, and that many more were killed as they ran for their lives down a main avenue, Chulpon Shokh Prospect.

After an all-night trek, they reached the Kyrgyz border. A resident of the frontier village of Teshik Tosh said he would show them a way to cross the border, but he led them into an ambush and was himself killed.

''My 48-year-old mother was with me. She was wounded and we had to leave her behind. An aunt was killed on the border,'' Atamatov said.

Then a local woman came to them and said that the governor of Pakhtabad would let them cross the border, but warned that Kyrgyz border guards might shoot at them.

''There was no way back, so we went ahead,'' he said.

Atamatov said his wife and his wife's mother and sister also made it to Kyrgyzstan but his five children remained in Andijan.