Prague, 17 May 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Britain is taking the lead in applying Western diplomatic pressure on Uzbekistan following bloody clashes between government troops and protesters in the eastern city of Andijon.
Foreign Secretary Jack Straw calls the violence a "clear abuse of human rights" and says reports of troops firing on unarmed civilians "cannot be justified." He has asked for immediate access to Andijon for humanitarian officials, diplomats, and journalists.
"If a visit [to Andijon] can take place in which EU ambassadors and journalists are able to see for themselves the situation on the ground, that obviously would very greatly assist," Straw said.
Britain says its embassy in Tashkent has been told such a visit will be allowed to take place on 18 or 19 May. The delegation will be composed of ambassadors and representatives from the UN and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), as well as the media.
Luxembourg is the current president of the European Union, but it does not have a diplomatic presence in Uzbekistan. Britain takes over the presidency of the European Union in July and is spearheading the EU response.
Uzbek President Islam Karimov has blamed the violence on Islamic militants. Straw said Britain accepts the need for "firm action" to deal with terrorism. But he said this must be done in a context in which there is respect for human rights and progress toward democracy.
The unrest in Uzbekistan -- and the government's response to it -- puts the United States and Britain in a delicate position. Both countries recruited Uzbekistan as an ally in the war against terrorism following the attacks of 11 September 2001. Tashkent has permitted the United States and coalition troops to use an air base at Karshi-Khanabad in southern Uzbekistan for regional military operations.
"The stability in Uzbekistan ultimately depends on their government reaching out to the citizenry and instituting real reforms -- political reforms, economic reforms, the rule of law -- and addressing its human-rights problems." - U.S. State Dept. spokesman
Straw rejects claims that criticism of the Andijon crackdown means that Britain is changing its policy toward Tashkent. Instead, Straw said, "there is now a sharper prism through which our concerns are being heard."
After days of relative diplomatic quiet, the United States yesterday also reacted strongly to the bloodshed in eastern Uzbekistan.
"We are deeply disturbed by the reports that the Uzbek authorities fired on demonstrators last Friday [13 May]," U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said. "We certainly condemn the indiscriminate use of force against unarmed civilians and deeply regret any loss of life. We have urged -- had urged, and continue to urge -- the Uzbek government to exercise restraint, stressing that violence cannot lead to long-term stability. And we've made that point with senior Uzbek authorities in Washington and Tashkent."
Boucher also condemned the actions of armed civilians who attacked a military barracks and prison in Andijon and occupied a regional administration building in the city. He said nothing justifies acts of violence or terrorism. And he said Washington remains concerned that members of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which the U.S. recognizes as a terrorist group, had escaped or been freed.
He said Washington has been disappointed by the pace of reform in Uzbekistan.
"The stability in Uzbekistan ultimately depends on their government reaching out to the citizenry and instituting real reforms -- political reforms, economic reforms, the rule of law -- and addressing its human-rights problems. We're disappointed in the degree of progress we've seen, and we will continue to work with the Uzbeks to address all these areas," Boucher said.
Last summer, the United States announced it was withholding up to $18 million in aid to Uzbekistan due to its poor human-rights record.
Speaking to reporters yesterday on her way back from Iraq, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Washington is still trying to understand what happened in Andijon. But she said Uzbekistan is "too closed." She said Washington has been encouraging the Karimov government to become more transparent so that people can enjoy a "political life."
At the United Nations, Secretary-General Kofi Annan called for restraint from all sides. He asked for compliance with humanitarian law and for cooperation with UN teams that have been sent to the region to deal with refugees fleeing the violence.
The OSCE says it is deeply concerned about events in Uzbekistan, a member state, and encourages all sides to settle their differences peacefully. Chairman in Office Dimitrij Rupel said the OSCE accepts that the Uzbek government believes it is dealing with terrorists, but said "one side appears to have employed lethal violence in a disproportionate or reckless fashion."
A spokeswoman for Jean Lemierre, the president of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, said the Uzbek violence only confirms the bank's worst fears.
"This is what we have feared for a long time," she said. "What we see in our region is that openness matters. We've been saying this all the time. Good governance and engaging people is crucial for growth and as important as privatization and other technical reform."
The EBRD suspended most of its funding for public sector projects in Uzbekistan last year, saying it had failed to meet democratic and human rights reforms required by the bank's charter.
International human rights groups have also condemned the events in Andijon.
Amnesty International is calling on Uzbek authorities to allow an open investigation into the events.
"Amnesty International was very shocked by the reported use of excessive force against civilians in Andijon and really very strongly condemns this indiscriminate use of force against civilians," Maisy Weicherding, a researcher on Uzbekistan, told RFE/RL on Tuesday. "We call on the authorities really to allow a prompt and independent investigation into these events, with the results made public and those responsible brought to justice."
She said Andijon is cut off from the outside world and that Amnesty fears government forces may be taking advantage of the situation by acting with impunity.
In an interview with RFE/RL's Uzbek Service, Aaron Rhodes, the executive director of the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights, said the bloodshed calls the legitimacy of the Uzbek government further into question.
"In many respects, the regime hasn't been legitimate for a long time because the regime is known to use torture, to apply the death penalty in cases where confessions are obtained under torture, to violate all kinds of civil and political rights, to violate the freedom of conscience, to persecute people on the basis of their religious beliefs, to suppress political pluralism of all kinds. It's a dictatorship," Rhodes 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'