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Uzbekistan: Spontaneous Popular Uprising In Andijon, Or Terrorist-Led Upheaval?

The number of dead has been widely disputed The events leading up to the killing of reportedly hundreds of Uzbeks on 13 May in the eastern city of Andijon have been described in very different ways. President Islam Karimov contends that chaos was sparked by armed "bandits and terrorists" who attacked and seized a prison, releasing hundreds of inmates. But independent observers and locals use other terms -- such as "popular uprising" and "revolution" -- to describe what happened.

Prague, 25 May 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Amid all the confusion over what took place in Andijon, one thing is certain: The government's account of events differs widely from that of human rights observers and ordinary Uzbeks.

President Islam Karimov, addressing a news conference on 14 May, blamed "bandits and terrorists" who belonged to the outlawed Hizb ut-Tahrir -- a charge the London-based Islamic group quickly denied.

Three days later, Uzbek Prosecutor-General Rashid Qodirov laid out a fuller version of what purportedly happened in the early morning hours of 13 May. He told a news conference that a group of armed people seized a police station, then a military unit, and later a local prison.

"During the attack [on the police station], the criminals murdered four personnel of the patrol post, [and] four more were seriously wounded. They took 264 firearms, 40 grenades, and more than 8,000 bullets," Qodirov said. "After that, the same armed band raided the nearby military base and seized the huge amount of weaponry, including 53 machine guns, four rifles, and more than 2,000 bullets, as well as a ZIL-130 truck."
"There were serious reasons why those men took weapons. Of course, an attack on a military base or anything of this sort cannot be justified. But there are other things behind it.."

Uzbek authorities said the group then marched to the jail, releasing some 600 prisoners, including 23 businessmen charged with belonging to the banned Islamic group Akramiya and awaiting a court verdict.

It's no easy task to attack a police station, a military garrison, and a prison that has had one of the highest security systems in the former Soviet Union. Such an operation is unlikely to be carried out without weapons or some casualties.

However, independent human rights activists and many locals reject the government's contention that armed terrorists with funding from abroad carried out the operation.

According to them, it was relatives and former employees of the 23 defendants -- with no specific religious agenda. They say these people were protesting what they considered to be unfair charges leveled against the businessmen.

This week, "The New York Times" quoted an inmate named Abushakhir as saying that ordinary citizens dissatisfied with Karimov's rule had stormed the prison. He estimated their number at between 50 and 100, saying they were neither particularly religious nor experienced rebels.

Inmates themselves say the jailbreak came as a surprise and in their accounts suggested they were not acquainted with the attackers. However, freed prisoners might be reluctant to disclose any names of attackers, fearing their persecution if identified.

Shamsiddin Atamatov is one of the 23 businessmen. He spoke to RFE/RL on 20 May in a refugee camp in neighboring Kyrgyzstan.

"That night, we heard shootings. The guards in the corridor ran. We thought it was a beginning of war. Then, people came and broke in. Everyone ran outside. We did not expect anything like that. We had no idea about what was happening," Atamatov said.

Burkhoniddin Nuritdinov was also one of the 23 defendants. He told RFE/RL that he did not know who organized the jailbreak and the subsequent demonstrations.

"We'd never seen anything like that before. I'd never heard any shootings in my entire life. I was shocked. We went to the corridor and were standing there for a while. The crowd was growing and someone said: 'Let's go downstairs.' We went downstairs, still in shock. We gathered outside. It was very dark, there were no lights on. Someone said: 'If you want you can go to hokimiyat [the regional administration building]. We will demand our rights.' People marched toward hokimiyat," Nuritdinov said.

After taking over the public administration offices, authorities say the protestors took some 50 people hostage and used them as human shields. Former inmates have said that armed men took about 15 people hostage, including police officers, soldiers, firefighters, and civil servants.

Sharipjon Shakirov, who was among those who occupied official buildings, told RFE/RL that at least one soldier was taken hostage.

As news of the events spread, ordinary citizens began to fill Andijon's main square to rally for better living conditions. Many of them were acquainted with neither the protestors nor the 23 businessmen.

One after another, these people spoke about poverty, unemployment, corruption, police abuse, and violation of human rights. Their demands ranged from cutting utilities prices down to Karimov's resignation.

During the rally, the Uzbek interior minister, Zakir Almatov, negotiated with its leaders over the phone. They reportedly demanded the government release all political prisoners, grant political and human rights, and send a top official to address the rally. Almatov rejected the demands.

And that's apparently when the shooting started.

Karimov said he never gave the orders to shoot at civilians and that the first shots fired came from the crowd. There were also reports that some of the demonstrators were armed and threw stones at security forces.

Witnesses say armored personnel carriers and military trucks began moving along the edge of the crowd, firing into it. Some reports say this shooting came after stones were thrown at soldiers.

But among other witnesses, a protester who later ended up in the Suzaq refugee camp in Kyrgyzstan rejected that possibility in remarks to RFE/RL.

"I saw no armed people [among protestors]. How can ordinary people be armed, where can they get weapons? I didn't see any weapons," one male refugee said.

But while witnesses suggest several people were killed and wounded in this initial stage of violence, the real bloodbath appears to have come later.

As troop reinforcements began to arrive, the protesters began to group together and move forward in a bid to escape.

But they didn't get very far before shooting broke out on all sides -- head-on automatic gunfire, as well as shooting from snipers and riflemen from buildings.

As with the events, there are widely different views on just how many people were killed in Andijon and nearby areas.

Authorities say 169 people died in Andijon, among them 32 government soldiers.

Rights groups say troops may have killed as many as 1,000 unarmed people, including the next day near the Kyrgyz border.

One local doctor reported counting some 400 bodies in a school-turned-morgue.

Ozod Dehqonlar (Free Peasants), an unregistered opposition party, said its members counted at least 745 victims after going door to door in Andijon, Pakhtaobod, and Karasu.

However, despite numerous inquiries from reporters, the party has so far not released its list of victims.

Akbar Oripov is an Andijon-based opposition member. Based on the accounts of protestors and witnesses, he rejects the government's contention that there were exchanges of fire. He described the events as a one-sided "fusillade."

"There were serious reasons why those men took weapons. Of course, an attack on a military base or anything of this sort cannot be justified. But there are other things behind it. I believe it was a revolt of people who have never seen justice, who have always lived in a country where law means nothing and rights are violated. They rebelled against the abuse of power, but I think they were not very politicized [they didn't aim to overthrow the government]," Oripov said.

Oripov said he's conducting an independent investigation of the 13 May events, something that the European Union, United States and United Nations have all called for.

Karimov has so far rejected that call.

(RFE/RL's Uzbek Service contributed to this report.)