- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 15, 2005

ANDIJAN, Uzbekistan — Thousands of terrified Uzbeks trying to flee into Kyrgyzstan burned a government building yesterday and attacked border guards in a second day of violence triggered by a brazen prison break to free accused Islamic militants and a massive demonstration against economic conditions under the iron-fisted rule of President Islam Karimov.

There was no immediate word on casualties in the latest violence in the former Soviet republic, but witnesses to Friday’s mayhem said more than 200 persons were killed in gunfire after government troops confronted the huge demonstration.

While the violence in Andijan appeared to have calmed yesterday, disturbances flared in the village of Korasuv, 30 miles to the east, where 6,000 Uzbeks trying to flee into Kyrgyzstan were blocked at the border. Some in the group set fire to a police station, vandalized police cars and attacked border personnel, a Kyrgyz official said. Uzbek helicopters were seen circling overhead.

Andijan is Uzbekistan’s fourth-largest city, about 30 miles from the country’s easternmost border in the narrow finger of territory that protrudes deep into Kyrgyzstan, where an uprising in late March ousted that country’s only post-Soviet leader.

The Uzbek unrest began overnight Friday when protesters freed as many as 2,000 prisoners, including 23 members of the Akramia Islamic group on trial on charges of being members of a group allied with the outlawed radical Islamic party Hizb-ut-Tahrir. It seeks to create a worldwide Islamic state and has been forced underground throughout most of Central Asia and Russia.

Mr. Karimov’s hard-line secular regime has a long history of repressing Muslims who worship outside state-approved mosques.

In the course of the day Friday, thousands of people swarmed into the streets of Andijan, clashing with police and seizing the administration building, which was later taken back by government forces. Demonstrators did not call for the ouster of Mr. Karimov, but instead complained bitterly about the dire economic conditions.

Russian President Vladimir Putin telephoned Mr. Karimov yesterday to express concern that the violence could destabilize Central Asia, the Kremlin press service said.

The U.S.-allied Uzbek leader blamed the fighting on Islamic extremists. During a press conference in the capital, Tashkent, he said 10 government troops and “many more” militants died in the fighting Friday. At least 100 people were wounded, Mr. Karimov said.

Uzbekistan hosts a U.S. air base in the Karshi-Khanabad region, 90 miles from the Afghan border, to support military operations in that country after the September 11 attacks in the United States. The base is more than 430 miles southwest of Andijan.

The White House yesterday declined to comment, although press secretary Scott McClellan on Friday urged both the government and demonstrators to “exercise restraint.”

After the shootings in Andijan on Friday, Lutfulo Shamsutdinov, head of the Independent Human Rights Organization of Uzbekistan, said he saw the bodies of about 200 victims being loaded onto trucks near the square. A witness in central Andijan said “many, many dead bodies are stacked up by a school near the square.”

Hundreds of angry protesters gathered yesterday at the site of Friday’s bloodshed, placing six bodies on display from the scores witnesses said were killed in the fighting.

Demonstrators, some with tears in their eyes, condemned the government for firing on women and children. Residents said a group of hundreds later went to a local police station to confront the heavily armed authorities, who sent a helicopter buzzing low over the crowd to scare them away.

Earlier yesterday, soldiers loaded scores of bodies onto four trucks and a bus after blocking friends and relatives from collecting them, witnesses said.

Daniyar Akbarov, 24, joined the protests yesterday after being freed from prison during the earlier clashes.

“Our women and children are dying,” he said, tearfully beating his chest with his fists. Mr. Akbarov said he saw at least 300 people killed.

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