Slaughter in Uzbekistan

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

THE OUTSIDE world still has much to learn about the bloody events since Friday in the Uzbek city of Andijon and the region around it. But what is known suggests that President Islam Karimov responded to a large rebellion involving both armed militants and thousands of ordinary citizens with a military assault in which scores -- some reports say many hundreds -- of people were indiscriminately gunned down. If so, the assault would be in keeping with Mr. Karimov's long-standing practice of responding to a real, if limited, Islamic extremist threat by brutally suppressing all opposition and rejecting any steps toward economic or political liberalization. It should raise the question of why the United States continues to support such criminal and self-defeating policies by partnering with the very military that carried out the attack.

The first step by the administration and other Western governments must be to demand, as the Bush administration and Britain did yesterday, that Mr. Karimov not only allow access to the blockaded city but that he also accept an international investigation to determine what happened. What is known so far suggests that the violence was preceded, and likely provoked, by the government's prosecution of 23 men from Andijon, many of them prosperous private businessmen, on charges of supporting an obscure Islamic extremist group. For weeks there were peaceful demonstrations outside the courthouse; as the trial came to a close last week several thousand people gathered. On Thursday night, armed militants broke into the prison where the defendants were held, freeing them as well as up to 2,000 other prisoners, including some extremists. They also took over the government administration building, and the next day a crowd numbering in the thousands gathered outside. According to Uzbek journalists at the scene, most were there to protest political and economic conditions.

By his own account, Mr. Karimov traveled to the city early Friday and oversaw fitful negotiations with the militants in the government building. When these failed, he ordered army units into the square, where -- according to eyewitness accounts -- they opened fire on the crowd from armored cars. At a nearby school, where some militants may have taken refuge, troops opened fire on another large crowd: The Associated Press quoted "a respected local doctor" as saying 500 bodies were laid out there Sunday. Other civilians were reportedly fired on and killed while trying to cross the nearby border into Kyrgyzstan.

At a news conference over the weekend Mr. Karimov predictably depicted all of the protesters as Islamic militants, adding that "attempts to develop democracy" would only play into the hands of such extremists. Yesterday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice rightly pointed out that the problem in Uzbekistan is just the opposite: It is the lack of "pressure valves that come from a more open political system." Mr. Karimov habitually ignores such prodding from the State Department, and understandably so, since he has the Pentagon's unconditional support for a "strategic partnership" by which the United States operates at an air base outside Tashkent. Last summer the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Richard B. Myers, publicly criticized cuts in U.S. aid to Uzbekistan. If President Bush really wants to influence Mr. Karimov, he will need to forge a policy that connects the military relationship to the dictator's domestic policies -- and order uniformed U.S. officers to follow it.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company