- The Washington Times - Friday, May 13, 2005

ANDIJAN, Uzbekistan — Soldiers loyal to Uzbekistan’s authoritarian leader, a U.S. ally, opened fire on thousands of demonstrators yesterday to put down an uprising that began when armed men freed 2,000 inmates from prison, including suspects on trial for suspected Islamic extremism.

Bursts of automatic gunfire continued to rattle across the center of Uzbekistan’s fourth-largest city today as troops loyal to hard-line President Islam Karimov sought to put down the insurrection, Agence France Presse reported.

The death toll from yesterday’s violence in Andijan was not known. The government said nine died before the shootings in the square but gave no overall figure. Witnesses said dozens may have been killed by the troops, who rode into the square in a truck behind an armored personnel carrier as helicopters hovered overhead.

Authorities said security forces had regained control of an administration building seized earlier in the day by armed protesters. Hostages taken by the demonstrators as human shields at the building were released, a high-ranking Uzbek official said.

The prison raid and the soldiers’ fusillades were in sharp contrast to the largely peaceful uprisings that sparked regime changes in the former Soviet republics of Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan in the past 18 months.

Uzbek President Islam Karimov is regarded as one of the harshest leaders in the former Soviet Union and apparently aims to quickly stifle any threats to his regime.

Uzbekistan is a key Washington ally in the war on terrorism and has hosted a U.S. air base to support military operations in neighboring Afghanistan since the September 11, 2001, attacks.

The United States called for restraint on both sides, walking a fine line between recognizing the Uzbek people’s democratic right to protest against their government and supporting an authoritarian regime that has been a strong U.S. ally against terrorism.

?The people of Uzbekistan want to see a more representative and democratic government, but that should come through peaceful means, not through violence,? said White House spokesman Scott McClellan.

At the State Department, spokesman Richard Boucher said: ?While we have been very consistently critical of the human rights situation in Uzbekistan, we are very concerned about the outbreak of violence in Andijan.?

He expressed particular concern about ?the escape of prisoners, including possibly members of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan,? which Washington considers a terrorist organization.

The focus of the jailbreak were 23 men on trial on charges of being members of a group allied with the outlawed radical Islamic party Hizb-ut-Tahrir, which seeks to create a worldwide Islamic state and has been forced underground throughout most of Central Asia and Russia.

Supporters of the 23 men maintain they were victims of religious repression by Mr. Karimov’s secular government.

The 23 are members of Akramia — a group named for their founder, Akram Yuldashev, an Islamic dissident sentenced in 1999 to 17 years in prison for purportedly urging the overthrow of Mr. Karimov in a pamphlet.

Akramis are considered the backbone of Andijan’s small business community, running a medical clinic and pharmacy, as well as working as furniture craftsmen, and providing employment to thousands in the impoverished Fergana Valley, where Islamist sentiment runs high.

Before dawn yesterday, armed supporters of the defendants raided the jail freeing all 23 as well as 2,000 other prisoners.

During the day, thousands of people swarmed into the city’s streets, clashing with police and seizing the administration building. Protest leader Kabuljon Parpiyev, 42, said the death toll could be as high as 50.

One of the 23 defendants, Abduvosid Egomov, who was holed up in the local government compound, said: ?We are not going to overthrow the government. We demand economic freedom.?

Staff writer Nicholas Kralev in Washington contributed to this article.

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