- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 18, 2005

From combined dispatches

KORASUV, Uzbekistan — Rebels relishing the prospect of a strict Islamic state were firmly in control of this border town yesterday, throwing up a new challenge to the Uzbek government as it tried to prove to skeptical diplomats that its troops didn’t fire on innocent civilians.

“We will be building an Islamic state here in accordance with the Koran,” rebel leader Bakhtiyor Rakhimov told the Associated Press in Korasuv, a town of 20,000.

The government of President Islam Karimov dismissed those claims as “nonsense,” but Mr. Rakhimov said he has 5,000 followers ready to fight any troops that try to crush the rebellion.

Meanwhile, the autocratic Karimov regime also faced pressure from abroad yesterday as Britain, the European Union, the United States and the United Nations called for an international inquiry into the unrest last Friday.

“It is a matter of grave international concern that these killings took place,” British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw told BBC radio. “The government has one version; the opposition has another. It is of crucial importance for the stability of society in Uzbekistan, as well as for the credibility of the government of Uzbekistan, that we get to the bottom of what happened.”

There was no sign of Uzbek officials in Korasuv yesterday. The officials apparently fled the town when rioters attacked police and government offices Saturday, a day after the violent confrontation in the nearby city of Andijan.

Regardless of officials’ attempt to shrug it off, the insurgency in Korasuv ratchets up the stakes for Uzbekistan, a U.S. ally in the war against terrorism. The uprising in Andijan that set off the violence Friday focused largely on social and economic demands. But it might have provided the opening that Islamist militants have craved.

Mr. Karimov’s government has blamed the unrest on militants and has denied that troops fired on any civilians. The government cites 169 dead in Andijan, but opposition activists say more than 700 were killed — more than 500 in Andijan and about 200 in Pakhtabad.

Uzbek officials took foreign diplomats and journalists on a lightning-quick tour of Andijan yesterday, showing them a prison and the local administration building, as the top U.N. human rights official called for an independent investigation.

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