Prague, 13 July 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The UN's high commissioner for human rights says witnesses of the Uzbek government's crackdown in Andijon consistently describe the event as a "mass killing."
In her report, Louise Arbour says the possibility of mass killing by Uzbek security forces cannot be ruled out. The report says numerous testimonies by Uzbek asylum seekers in Kyrgyzstan are consistent -- lending credibility to the allegations.
Arbour's spokesman, Jose Diaz, explained the findings to RFE/RL.
"Their findings are coming from testimony -- consistent and credible testimony -- that tells of grave human rights violations, mostly of the right to life, reportedly committed by Uzbek military and security forces," Diaz said. "Our team concludes from the interviews that they conducted with Uzbek asylum seekers that the incidents could amount to mass killing of civilians."
The crackdown in Andijon on 13 May came after large-scale protests over a court ruling that jailed some 20 people for alleged Islamic extremism. The Uzbek government says that during the protests, an armed group of Islamic militants raided the jail, freeing prisoners and killing hostages. Government troops were then called in to put down the revolt. Uzbekistan puts the final death toll at 187 and says half of those killed were militants.
Diaz says the UN cannot confirm the government's own account of the events because authorities in Tashkent refuse to allow an independent team of international investigators to conduct more interviews within Andijon.
"We have one part of the story, which our team gathered in Kyrgyzstan, speaking to asylum seekers," Diaz said. "We also need to get the other side of the story, to get a full picture of what happened -- to have a clear accounting. I think it would be necessary, in order to do that, to have an independent investigation that we would be able to go to Andijon in Uzbekistan."
The UN report comes two days after a delegation of foreign diplomats was allowed to tour the main square in Andijon, where much of the violence occurred.
It is the second diplomatic delegation allowed to monitor the Uzbek government's probe into the suppression of the uprising. It included representatives from Russia, China, Iran, India, and Pakistan, as well as other former Soviet republics in Central Asia.
Sadriddin Ashurov, an RFE/RL correspondent who traveled to Andijon on 11 July with the foreign diplomats, said he was not allowed to interview anyone in the city except those who had been hand-picked by the authorities.
The report says there is an "urgent need" for neighboring countries to stop deporting Uzbek asylum seekers and Andijon witnesses back to Uzbekistan because they face the risk of torture.
"I wanted to talk with ordinary people in Andijon, but I couldn't," Ashurov said. "That's because there were police standing on every corner or in Nexias (the Daewoo cars used by the Uzbek police). Then I went to another street. There were also policemen. It seemed that every corner I wanted to go to was surrounded by the police. If you want to talk to someone in the street with a microphone in hand, two strange men immediately approach you."
The report by the UN's high commissioner for human rights says independent investigators should be guaranteed freedom of movement, as well as free access to all relevant places and documents. It says a comprehensive international probe should include forensic and ballistic experts, as well as crime-scene specialists.
The report also says there is an "urgent need" for neighboring countries to stop deporting Uzbek asylum seekers and Andijon witnesses back to Uzbekistan. It says those asylum seekers face the risk of torture if they are returned.
Uzbek President Islam Karimov's regime has been denounced by human rights advocates and Western governments for torture and repression of opposition groups. Karimov is seen as one of the harshest leaders in the former Soviet Union.
U.S. State Department spokesman Tom Casey said yesterday that Uzbek authorities have an obligation to allow "a serious, independent, and reliable" investigation into the events of May. Casey stressed that Washington and its allies will continue to push for such a probe -- either by the United Nations, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or what he called "any other credible body."
Experts note that divisions are emerging between Washington and Moscow over the validity of the Uzbek government's account of the events. Yurii Lebed, a councilor at the Russian Embassy in Tashkent, says he is convinced that the Uzbek government's version is correct.
Christopher Langton, head of the department of defense studies at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, said Russia's support for Karimov's regime is an open challenge to Washington for dominance in Central Asia.
"I think the real issue here is that the criticism by the United States of the Karimov regime's response to the protests which followed the armed violence in Andijon in the Ferghana Valley has worsened the relationship between President Karimov and Washington, at the same time that his relationship with Moscow is improving," Langton said.
Langton concluded that the relationship between Russia and the United States in Central Asia and Afghanistan is changing, from one based on cooperation after the attacks of 11 September 2001 to one that is more competitive.
Langton noted that China, too, is uneasy about the growing U.S. military presence in the region.
(RFE/RL Uzbek Service correspondents Khurmat Babajanov and Farruh Yusup contributed to this report.)