Protesters and eyewitnesses in Karakalpakstan are rejecting the Uzbek government's claims that people who took to the streets on July 1-2 were criminals who attacked security forces and inflicted "extensive damage to infrastructure."
As thousands of people gathered to protest Tashkent's proposed referendum that could strip Karakalpakstan of its autonomy, some local elders warned the crowds to "be careful not to damage anything," an eyewitness told RFE/RL.
"I joined a crowd near the old bus station, where several elderly people were telling everyone: 'Don't damage anything. Don't touch shops, don't break traffic lights,'" the man said, recalling events he said he witnessed in the regional capital, Nukus, in the early evening of July 2.
The thirtysomething man said the elders warned the crowd, "We must do everything to prevent bloodshed like what happened in Kazakhstan," referring to the January riots that killed more than 220 people in the neighboring country.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, the Karakalpak man said the crowd then marched toward the city center, where "more people from other towns" were expected to gather.
"We said we'll rally peacefully," he told RFE/RL by phone from the town of Shymbai.
A young Nukus resident gave a similar account, saying what he saw was "an absolutely peaceful gathering."
"People had only flags in their hands. They were just chanting, clapping, cheering," the man said, adding that he was a bystander and didn't take part in the demonstrations.
But clashes with security forces left at least 14 civilians and four police officers dead, according to the government, and some 240 people wounded. Officials haven't yet explained who it was who killed and wounded the civilians -- or how the harm was inflicted.
The rallies in Karakalpakstan broke out after Tashkent proposed a package of amendments to the Uzbek Constitution that would effectively remove the autonomous region's right to secede.
The government abandoned the amendments after the protests turned into the worst violence the authoritarian Central Asian state has seen in nearly two decades.
The Uzbek Foreign Ministry described the demonstrations in Karakalpakstan as "mass pogroms and atrocities" that "cannot be qualified as peaceful demonstrations by citizens."
"A group of criminals organized violent actions, clashes, and attempts to forcibly seize" government buildings in Nukus, the ministry said in a statement.
The statement also accused protesters of seizing weapons, taking hostages from among the security forces, carrying out arson attacks, and destroying private and public property.
Uzbek media in recent days have published interviews with police officers and soldiers who said they were attacked and injured by protesters.
One soldier claimed that hundreds of protesters blocked the roads and attacked troops and their military vehicles on July 2. A policeman said he was shot in the leg by a protester carrying a hunting rifle, while others were throwing stones at security forces.
According to the Uzbek government, 107 security officers were wounded during the "attacks."
The Interior Ministry said the government forces only used water cannons, smoke grenades, and stun grenades that don't cause serious injuries. But multiple videos on social media show uniformed officers beating unarmed civilians with clubs. Some videos depict men who appear to have sustained gunshot wounds.
'They Didn't Come To Fight'
The man who spoke from Shymbai rejected the government's narrative, saying that "people didn't destroy anything."
"The roadside vendors selling watermelons had gone home in the evening, leaving their goods outside as usual. Nobody touched them. There was a carwash next to us. Nobody touched the cars," the man said.
The protester said that as the crowd tried to move closer to the government headquarters in Nukus, police pushed them back. "We didn't have shields or special headgear to protect ourselves, we had no weapons," the man said. "Only later, when police used force against the us without any reason, people took sticks and stones."
The man said several people were killed at night by "an explosive device" thrown at them.
A woman eyewitness of the protests who didn't want to give her name, said people had gathered near parliament "to have their voices heard, not to fight."
"They came with bare hands, just with mobile phones. They didn't come with shovels or knives," she said.
Uzbek prosecutors say they have launched probes into the unrest, which Tashkent blames on "malicious foreign forces" plotting to ignite ethnic strife in Uzbekistan and destabilize the country.
The turmoil in Karakalpakstan marked the worst violence in Uzbekistan since 2005, when hundreds of people were killed in a government crackdown on anti-government protesters in the eastern city of Andijon.