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Situation Still Tense In Uzbekistan As Unofficial Death Toll Rises

Prague, 17 May 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Gunfire broke out before daybreak in Andijon despite an overnight curfew, though information about what is happening in the eastern Uzbek city remains scarce. Authorities in Tashkent say security forces have fully reasserted control there after recent violence that human rights groups say killed more than 500. Meanwhile, eyewitnesses say more people were killed as the Uzbek military opened fire at refugees trying to cross into neighboring Kyrgyzstan.

RFE/RL correspondents Gafur Yuldoshev and Andrei Babitskii report from Andijon that gunfire that broke out overnight under circumstances that remain to be clarified.

An initial report that security guards used their weapons to disperse residents trying to force their way into the city’s morgue to retrieve the bodies of relatives killed in the violence that began 13 May could not be confirmed.

Agence France Presse reports the gunfire lasted three to four hours. The agency quotes policemen guarding the regional administration’s building as saying unknown assailants opened fire on several security checkpoints.

Uzbek authorities blame alleged militants of the radical Islamist Hizb ut-Tahrir (Party of Liberation) for recent violence in Andijon.

Talking to reporters in Tashkent on 14 May, Uzbek President Islam Karimov also charged that foreign countries were involved in the unrest.

But both Hizb ut-Tahrir and local rights group deny the official account of events.

Saidjahon Zainabitdinov, who chairs an Andijon-based human rights group known as Apellyatsiya (Appeal), says Karimov bears responsibility for the recent upheaval. “It was a genuine popular uprising," he said. "People had no political demands. Simply they’ve been driven to despair and poverty by the government’s domestic and economic policy.”

Zainabitdinov is among those who in Uzbekistan reject the government’s official death toll for the violence.

Karimov on 14 May said 30 people, including many government soldiers, were killed the day before as the army and police battled armed protesters to reassert control over Andijon.

But eyewitnesses and local human rights groups say violence claimed at least 500 lives in Andijon alone.

In comments made to the Russian “Izvestiya” newspaper, the leader of the Ozod Dehqonlar (Free Peasants) opposition party, Nigara Hidoyatova, puts the overall death toll at nearly 750 -- including some 200 in other parts of eastern Uzbekistan near the Kyrgyz border.

Hidoyatova said that her claims are based on research conducted by party members, who went house-to-house in Andijon and towns located near the Uzbek-Kyrgyz border, asking residents if anyone in their families had been killed during the violence.

Outside Andijon, the situation remains equally tense.

Western media quote Uzbek refugees in neighboring Kyrgyzstan as saying the army shot and killed an uncertain number of civilians as they were crossing the border.

Residents of the eastern Uzbek village of Teshiktosh, 15 kilometers from Pakhtaobod, told AFP today they saw soldiers gunning down 13 unarmed people, including women and children, as they were trying to flee to Kyrgyzstan three days ago.

It was not clear immediately whether the incident took place in Teshiktosh itself, or in Pakhtaobod. Also unclear is whether all casualties were civilians. Other eyewitness accounts suggest soldiers were among the dead.

The chief of mission for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Carlos Zaccagnini, told RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service in Jalal-Abad, Kyrgyzstan, today that refugees from Uzbekistan are receiving asylum status.

"We have information that 540 [Uzbek] refugees are in Kyrgyz territory, and we have also confirmed that yesterday the [Kyrgyz] Department of Migration, they registered these persons as asylum seekers," Zaccagnini said.

Click here for a gallery of images from the violence in eastern Uzbekistan on 13-14 May.

See also:

Bloody Friday In The Ferghana Valley

Where Does Crisis Go From Here?

Protesters Charge Officials With Using Extremism Charges To Target Entrepreneurs

Analysis: Economic Concerns Primary In Andijon

Background: Banned Hizb ut-Tahrir Faces Dwindling Appeal, Internal Divisions

Interview: Opposition Leader Tells RFE/RL About 'Farmers' Revolution'

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