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U.S. "disturbed" by bloodbath in ally Uzbekistan

Reuters | May 17 2005

Washington said on Monday it was "deeply disturbed" by reports Uzbek authorities fired on protesters last week, a massacre a rights activist said could herald a new wave of repression in the U.S. ally.

Security forces put down the rebellion in Andizhan on Friday, sparked by the trial of 23 Muslim businessmen and blamed by President Islam Karimov on Islamic extremists, in the bloodiest chapter in the country's post-Soviet history.


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"We are deeply disturbed by the reports that the Uzbek authorities fired on demonstrators," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher told reporters. "We certainly condemn the indiscriminate use of force against unarmed civilians and deeply regret any loss of life.

The comments were the strongest from the United States since the bloodbath, when troops killed 500 protesters according to some witnesses and activists.

Witnesses told Reuters in Andizhan that soldiers outside a school gunned down a large crowd, including women, children and 10 police hostages, that was moving away from a main square where the shooting started.

"It was a massacre," said a 31-year-old cobbler who witnessed the killing outside School No. 15 from a side-street. "This sickening smell of blood, smashed brains, guts, and blood, blood, everywhere. I could not put my feet on a dry spot.

"I saw soldiers killing several wounded with single shots to the head after asking 'are there any wounded around?'," he said, asking not to be named because the security services had detained him twice.

He said he saw about 500 corpses. His comments could not be verified but were corroborated by others.

Saidzhakhon Zainabitdinov of Uzbek rights group Appeal said a wave of repression was likely to follow.

"One can now only expect massive arrests and the elimination of those opposing the regime," he told Reuters in Andizhan.

Uzbekistan, a mostly Muslim state bordering Afghanistan, is a U.S. ally, providing use of an airbase. Human rights groups have repeatedly criticised the country for jailing dissident Muslims and the widespread use of torture.


Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called on Karimov to relax his tight grip on political life.

"We have been encouraging the Karimov government to make reforms, to make the system more open," she told reporters. "This is a country that needs, in a sense, (the) pressure valves that come from a more open political system."

Andizhan remained tense on Monday, parts of the centre blocked by armoured personnel carriers and troops who raised their Kalashnikov assault rifles and clicked off the safety catch at approaching pedestrians.

Single gun shots could be heard overnight.

British Foreign Minister Jack Straw, who has pressed for greater transparency from Uzbek officials, said the Uzbek government had promised to let foreign diplomats visit Andizhan.

On Saturday, thousands fled the bloodshed to the closed border with Kyrgyzstan and in one border town, Kara-Suu, residents set fire to a police station and other official buildings, fanning fears the unrest might spread.

The violence in Andizhan followed protests in the nearby Kyrgyz cities of Osh and Jalal Abad, which led to the overthrow of Kyrgyz President Askar Akayev in March -- the third long-serving leader of an ex-Soviet state to go in 18 months.

Zainabitdinov said although the uprising in Andizhan had been put down, it marked a point of no return for Karimov.

"In the final analysis it looks like the president has doomed himself and he is going to be put on trial sooner or later," said Zainabitdinov, 50.

In Tashkent, a small group of activists staged a rally to commemorate the dead.

In graphic testimony, witnesses told Reuters on Sunday that troops outside the school used an armoured personnel carrier's machinegun to fire at the crowd, a mix of armed rebels, protesters and onlookers including women and children.

The first to be killed were 10 police who were being held hostage and begged the soldiers not to fire, said the witnesses, a local businessman and a driver who asked not to be identified.

The third witness, the cobbler, said on Monday he had been shot at as, with others, he moved 20 wounded away.

"One boy aged 15 had one half of his right leg torn off by a large-calibre bullet. One half of his right arm was swinging on a bit of skin," he said. "He died 15 minutes after I brought him to the schoolyard."

Officials have said 10 police and "many more" rebels were killed, but have denied opening fire on civilians. Prosecutors in Tashkent said a formal investigation had been launched.

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