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Uzbek Officials Blame Terrorists For Recent Violence

Prague, 18 May 2005 (RFE/RL) -- A group of foreign diplomats has arrived in Uzbekistan's Ferghana Valley to investigate last week's violence, in which Uzbek opposition leaders say nearly 750 died. Uzbek President Islam Karimov categorically denies this. The official line is that far fewer died, although there is some confusion in government circles about the numbers and their identity.

The arrival of the group of foreign diplomats and journalists in the city of Andijon, scene of the worst of last week's violence, follows demands by Britain and other countries for unrestricted access to the area for diplomats, journalists and aid workers. The trip was organized by the Uzbek authorities.

Uzbek Prosecutor-General Rashid Qodirov said yesterday that 169 people died in Andijon on 13 May, among them 32 government soldiers. Most of the others, he said, were armed terrorists, including foreigners. But there appears to be some confusion in the government on the figures. Interior Minister Zokir Almatov appeared to contradict the prosecutor-general when he said that there were 108 civilians among the dead in Andijon.

Either way, the figures are regarded with considerable skepticism both within Uzbekistan and in the international community. According to eye witnesses, most of the bloodshed occurred when troops attacked a large antigovernment demonstration in Andijon. They say that most of the demonstrators were unarmed and that some 500 people were killed in the city, many of them women and children.

On 14 May, the day after the worst violence, RFE/RL correspondent Sadriddin Ashurov spoke to people in the streets of Andijon as they searched for their relatives. He has since been expelled from the region.

"Yesterday, they killed little children, babies, they killed women. They have collected all the [bodies]," one young man told Ashurov. Another said: "Last night, they [the authorities] took away all the corpses of the women and children because they couldn't say they were terrorists. Only male bodies are left. They are all over the city."

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour reflected growing international concern about events in Uzbekistan when she referred yesterday to "indiscriminate and excessive use of force" by law-enforcement officials.

Jose Diaz, spokesman for the high commissioner, told RFE/RL, "She [Arbour] is calling for an independent investigation into events in Andijon in eastern Uzbekistan, the very disturbing reports that we've all seen coming from there about the clashes and differences in interpretations about the events and about the number of people who have been killed and injured."

Residents of Andijon reported that a major cleanup had been under way in the city in preparation for the diplomats and journalists. Buildings had been cleaned up and repaired and streets washed. Malik Boboev, a correspondent in the area for the Institute of War and Peace Reporting, says there is still shooting at night and that the situation is still very tense in the smaller towns beyond Andijon.

"Today, we tried to go to Karasu, but unfortunately all roads are closed," Boboev said. "We tried to go by my different ways but all were tightly blocked. There were soldiers in uniform and wearing helmets everywhere. In smaller villages [around Karasu], police in civilian clothes had set up road blocks and were patrolling the streets. It's completely impossible to get to Karasu from the Uzbek side."

President Karimov, meanwhile, says the media -- and, in particular, the Western media -- are distorting the truth. He accuses them of mounting a concerted campaign to depict his government as a tyranny. The truth, he says, is that government troops killed only terrorists.

"What kind of peaceful demonstration is it when they arm themselves first by receiving weapons from outside Uzbekistan, then attack a police station, then attack a regular military base, a brigade, taking up to 305 automatic rifles, as the prosecutor just said, hundreds of pistols and grenades, four machine guns, then attack a prison and set some 600 prisoners free, and only after that hold a peaceful demonstration," Karimov said.

But his is a version of events diametrically at odds with eyewitness accounts on 14 May from people on the streets of Andijon. "What do you call someone who kills his own people? It was nothing short of genocide," one woman said. "It was worse that the fascists. They [Uzbek government troops] were shooting at women and children. Down with Karimov."

Opposition leaders blame government troops for most of the violence, which was sparked public outcry over the trial of 23 people for alleged involvement in a banned Islamic group. They say that nearly 750 people died in the unrest in Andijon and other towns. Refugees, who have fled into neighboring Kyrgyzstan, insist the demonstrations were peaceful.

(By Robert Parsons)

Copyright (c) 2005. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.

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