The United States Wednesday urged a credible and transparent investigation of the violent unrest in Uzbekistan late last week that may have left hundreds of people dead. The State Department said it is becoming apparent that Uzbek security forces used indiscriminate force against civilian protesters in the city of Andijan.
Officials here are sharpening their calls for an inquiry into the unrest, amid what they say are growing indications that Uzbek security forces over-reacted and used indiscriminate force against demonstrators in Andijan.
Reports of the violence in the northeastern Uzbek city differ greatly, with opposition factions saying the death toll exceeded 700, and the government insisting it was a fraction of that and that many of the dead were soldiers killed by Islamic extremists.
At a news briefing, State Department Spokesman Richard Boucher said there needs to be a credible and transparent investigation of the events, either undertaken or supported by the international community.
He said, while the United States is still trying to develop a clearer picture of what occurred in Andijan, evidence is building that there were large-scale casualties among civilians:
"I would have to say that reports being compiled paint a very disturbing picture of the events and the government of Uzbekistan's reaction to them. It's becoming apparent that very large numbers of civilians were killed by the indiscriminate use of force by Uzbek forces. We deeply regret that loss of life, and are deeply concerned of reports of indiscriminate firing by Uzbek authorities on demonstrators last Friday," said Mr. Boucher.
Mr. Boucher said it is also clear that the violent episode began with an armed attack by anti-government elements on a prison and other state facilities, and said that violence also cannot be justified and should be investigated.
The prison attack reportedly led to the escape or deliberated release of a number of members of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, an extremist faction listed by the United States as a terrorist organization.
A senior diplomat who spoke to reporters here said it is a fact that there are what he termed very nasty terrorist groups operating in and around Uzbekistan that need to be combated.
However, he said that cannot be the reason for the government of Uzbek President Islam Karimov to more broadly suppress Islamic sentiment or human rights in the country in general.
In the wake of the Andijan violence, U.S. officials including Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, have renewed calls on the authoritarian Uzbek leadership to allow political reforms and openness.
They say the Bush administration has been consistently critical of Mr. Karimov's human rights record despite valuable Uzbek support for the U.S. war on terrorism, including allowing the use of an airbase for American operations in Afghanistan.
Spokesman Boucher welcomed the Uzbek government's escorted tour of Andijan Wednesday for foreign journalists and diplomats as a useful first step, and an indication that authorities are willing to allow international scrutiny of the events there.
The U.S. ambassador to Tashkent Jon Purnell took part in the tour, though Mr. Boucher said the envoy had not reported back on his findings, and noted press reports that the visitors had not been taken to the actual scene of the violence.
The spokesman also cited reports that Uzbek authorities had begun to lift the news blackout they imposed on last week's events, and expressed hope they will allow greater media access, including inviting in foreign journalists.