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Diplomats Assess Aftermath of Uzbekistan Violence

  • Bill Gasperini

Authorities in Uzbekistan flew a group of foreign diplomats and journalists to the town of Andijan, where violent unrest may have left hundreds of people dead. But the two-hour visit provided few answers about how many died or exactly what happened. Calls for an inquiry into the incident are building.

Dozens of foreign diplomats and journalists were escorted under heavy guard around Andijan to see some of the burned-out buildings and areas affected by violence last Friday and Saturday.

Authorities said they wanted the visitors to see that reports of possibly 700 civilian deaths were exaggerated, and that all has returned to normal.

Authoritarian ruler Islam Karimov maintains that 169 people were killed in clashes between soldiers and Islamic extremists. But eyewitnesses say soldiers fired into a large crowd of civilian protesters.

Many of those escorted through mostly deserted streets say the visit did little to establish just what happened, or exactly how many died amid the widely conflicting reports.

The group was taken to a police station, prison, military base and the main square in Andijan, one of the largest towns in the impoverished Ferghana Valley, known for its anti-government sentiment.

The diplomats and journalists had little chance to talk with local people in a town that remains under heavy guard.

Sergei Gaponov is a reporter with Russia's Channel One television network.

He says the central streets are blocked with military vehicles, and that everywhere there are soldiers with submachine guns. He adds that the group saw burned buildings including the local administration offices, and on the main square the smell of burning was a reminder of what happened.

Numerous eyewitnesses have said soldiers arrived in military vehicles and began shooting into the crowd indiscriminately. Doctors later reported seeing hundreds of bodies laid out at a school for relatives to identify.

But the government says most of the dead were either soldiers or armed militants. President Karimov says the leader of an opposition group that said it counted over 700 dead "needs psychiatric treatment".

There are additional reports of more shooting by soldiers in a town near the border with Kyrgyzstan where thousands of people fled to escape the violence in Andijan.

Foreign governments including the United States have called for Uzbekistan to exercise restraint. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice went further on Tuesday, appealing to Mr. Karimov to open up the political system in the country.

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw is calling for an "international and independent" inquiry into the reported killing of the protesters. He tells the BBC in London that "it is a matter of grave international concern that these killings took place."

In addition, Louise Arbour, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, called for an inquiry, saying she was "deeply concerned" about the violence.

Many analysts warn that repressive measures and lack of freedom only make more unrest likely.

In another development, an Uzbek rebel leader declared that an Islamic uprising against the government has started in the border town where the refugees fled. The government says that is not true.