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Up to 500 May Have Died During Unrest in Uzbekistan

  • Bill Gasperini

Witnesses say around 500 bodies have been laid out in a school in the town where Uzbek soldiers fired on civilian protesters Friday. There is information about another clash in a border town near the scene of the earlier unrest.

A doctor in the town of Andijon says relatives are trying to identify their loved ones among hundreds who reportedly died when Uzbek army troops fired on a large crowd of demonstrators Friday.

Estimates of the dead vary widely, but many different witnesses have put the toll in the hundreds and dispute the government version that only a small number died.

The unrest began after armed men freed 23 businessmen from a jail. The government says the men are Islamic extremists, but supporters say they provide jobs in the impoverished Ferghana Valley region, which is known for its anti-government sentiment.

Up to nine people are thought to have died in the attack on the jail, which came after weeks of small protests about the treatment of the businessmen.

Later, a crowd gathered in the main square to hear speakers denounce the government of long-time ruler Islam Karimov. Witnesses say military vehicles arrived carrying soldiers who then fired at the crowd.

Mr. Karimov blames the violence on Islamic radicals who seek to overthrow his government. He says soldiers had orders not to shoot at women and children.

The crackdown led thousands of people to flee to the border with neighboring Kyrygzstan, where similar unrest in March spiraled into a nationwide protest that brought down the autocratic leader there.

There are now reports of a new clash between armed men and government troops in an Uzbek town closer to the border. Several soldiers were reported killed.

Foreign governments including the United States have called for restraint to avoid further bloodshed.

Russia has sided with Mr. Karimov, blaming Islamic extremists for attempting to create instability.

Vladimir Vasilyev, who heads the Security Committee in Russia's parliament, says Russia has been monitoring the situation closely because of concern about how events may develop, and will decide what to do depending on that.

Human-rights groups have long criticized Mr. Karimov's regime for abuses, including torture of prisoners and illegal detentions. They blame poverty and repressive policies for the situation, saying Uzbekistan is ripe for more unrest.

American soldiers have been based at an airport in southern Uzbekistan since 2001, but this is far from the scene of the unrest.

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