Several Dead After Violent Day In Uzbek City
Prague, 13 May 2005 (RFE/RL) -- There's been a bloody day of violence in the eastern Uzbek city of Andijon, where a number of people have been killed in clashes between protesters and security forces.The violence began overnight, when an armed group attacked a police station and military barracks just after midnight. The group took weapons, then freed prisoners from a high-security prison, before seizing the regional administration building.
Hundreds of prisoners were released, and authorities said nine protesters and police were killed in the clashes that followed.
More people were feared to have been killed later, when security forces opened fire on a square where thousands of protesters had gathered. Some reports said security forces then moved in and retook a government building in the city that had been seized by rioters.
The head of Uzbekistan's office of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, Galima Bukharbaeva, was at the scene when the shooting started. She gave this account to RFE/RL:
"It was almost 5:30 p.m. (1430 Prague time) when the people saw BTRs (armored personnel carriers) approaching. People started screaming and running away. We also ran. There were two or three BTRs at first. I couldn't tell exactly because I was running together with the crowd. But then, just five minutes later, more BTRs came, and they started shooting in our backs. Bullets were flying. It was terrifying," Bukharbaeva said.
Bukharbayeva said she sought cover and could see that people had been shot.
"I was able to hide myself in an aryq (a small canal), and from there I saw wounded people being carried away from of the crowd. I saw five men completely covered in blood being carried away in front of me. The people carrying them were also covered in blood. They said those people [being carried] were dead. They were just bodies. They didn't move. But I think some of them were wounded. There were five or maybe more people [were wounded]. People were saying, 'Look, journalists, there are two or three dead bodies here.' But we couldn't look because the shooting continued," Bukharbaeva said.
Police say the first shots fired came from the crowd.
Uzbek Interior Minister Zakir Almatov had begun negotiations earlier today with the protesters, who said they were holding a number of policemen hostage.
The protesters had first demanded that 23 local businessmen charged with being members of a banned Islamic group, Akramiya, be freed. The defendants maintain the charges are politically and economically motivated.
Reports say the 23 defendants were freed in the course of today's events. Then the protesters demanded that the government free all of those who are jailed on suspicion of belonging to Akramiya.
Talking to RFE/RL's Uzbek Service from the occupied regional administration building, one of the protesters, Sharipjon Shakirov, said this was the only demand being put forward to the government.
"We have only one demand. They should release those guys who were imprisoned under slander, including [Akramiya founder] Akram Yuldoshev," Shakirov said.
Shakirov said the government was refusing to meet the demand and offering instead the chance to leave the country and go to Osh, in neighboring Kyrgyzstan. Tashkent accused the protesters of refusing to compromise.
Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Tajikistan have all placed their security and border forces on heightened alert.
Uzbek President Islam Karimov was reportedly en route to Andijon earlier today, but his whereabouts are unknown. His arrival in Andijon has not been reported.
Karimov was also reportedly scheduled to make an address on state television, but did not do so. Karimov's press service said earlier today it had no intention of declaring an emergency situation.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan called for restraint: "We urge both the government and the demonstrators to exercise restraint at this time. The people of Uzbekistan want to see a more representative and democratic government, but that should come through peaceful means, not through violence."
The U.S. State Department said it is worried that members of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, designated a terrorist group by the U.S., may have been freed during the jailbreak.
In Moscow, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov initially said the events were "Uzbekistan's internal affair." But ministry spokesman Aleksandr Yakovenko later condemned what he called "the attack by extremists."
(By Bruce Pannier and Gulnoza Saidazimova with contributions from RFE/RL's Uzbek, Kyrgyz, Kazakh, and Tajik services)
Copyright (c) 2005. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org
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