Witnesses Describe Uzbek Bloodshed

By Dmitry Solovyov
Monday, May 16, 2005

ANDIJON, Uzbekistan, May 15 -- The families of hundreds of people killed when troops opened fire to quell protests in eastern Uzbekistan buried their dead Sunday, as witnesses described the bloody mayhem that erupted Friday.

In a single incident in Andijon on Friday, witnesses said, soldiers fired on a crowd that included women and children as police begged them not to shoot.

"They shot at us like rabbits," said a boy in his late teens, recalling the horror of troops rampaging through the square where 3,000 protesters, some of them reportedly armed, had rallied.

The troops moved in on protesters Friday after armed men freed a group of businessmen held in jail while being tried on charges of religious extremism. The armed men took 10 police officers hostage and occupied the town's government building, backed by several thousand sympathizers.

Hundreds of bodies left outside a school were removed early Saturday, the witnesses said. Blood and body parts could still be seen on sidewalks and in gutters Sunday in Andijon, a city of about 300,000.

Islam Karimov, the autocratic president of the mainly Muslim country in Central Asia, said troops in Andijon were given no order to fire. He blamed the violence on rebels belonging to Hizb ut-Tahrir, an outlawed radical Islamic network that seeks the restoration of the Caliphate, or a super-Islamic state. The group has denied involvement in the fighting.

Andijan, Uzbekistan
A Russian news agency, meanwhile, reported that Uzbek troops had fired on civilians trying to flee into neighboring Kyrgyzstan to escape the violence in their homeland.

The United States has urged the conflicting sides to show restraint. The United States considers Karimov a close ally in the war on terrorism and uses an air base in the country.

In Britain, Foreign Secretary Jack Straw denounced "a clear abuse of human rights, a lack of democracy and a lack of openness" and called on Uzbekistan to allow in the Red Cross and foreign observers to establish what had happened.

Uzbek officials reacted angrily, Russia's RIA news agency said, saying forces had not fired on demonstrators.

On Saturday, Karimov said that 10 police officers and troops had been killed and that a greater number of rebels also had died, but he gave no figure for civilians killed.

Saidzhakhon Zainabitdinov, chairman of a local human rights group, estimated that as many as 500 people were killed in the ensuing operation to crush the protests, which would make it the bloodiest incident in Uzbekistan's post-Soviet history.

At a cemetery in the city, Wahhabjon Mominov, a gravedigger, said Sunday he had already dug four graves in the morning for victims of Friday's violence. The facade of the two-story School No. 15 was pockmarked with at least 20 bullet holes.

The bloodshed prompted as many as 4,000 people to flee to the closed border with Kyrgyzstan.

"There have been about 1,000 people in the column I was in moving toward the border," Russia's Interfax news agency quoted one of the refugees as saying.

Southern Kyrgyzstan is home to many ethnic Uzbeks and was the starting point for violent protests this year that led to the overthrow of President Askar Akayev.

The Kyrgyz upheaval followed the peaceful overthrow of established leaders in Ukraine and Georgia. The firm rule of Karimov would appear to make such a peaceful revolution unlikely in Uzbekistan.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company