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US Appeals for Restraint in Uzbekistan Amid Civil Unrest

Armoured personnel carrier blocks street in Andijan, Uzbekistan
The United States Monday urged restraint by authorities in Uzbekistan amid reports of continuing unrest in the Central Asian state. U.S. officials also criticized violence by anti-government demonstrators.

The United States has been a long-time critic of the human rights record of the Uzbek government.

But officials here are faulting both the authorities in Tashkent and opponents for the violence that may have killed hundreds of people since late last week.

State Department Spokesman Richard Boucher said the latest reports from Uzbekistan suggest the situation is easing, but with a continued flow of Uzbeks seeking refuge in neighboring Kyrgyzstan.

At a news briefing, he said the United States is deeply disturbed by reports Uzbek authorities fired on demonstrators last Friday, and condemns the indiscriminate use of force against unarmed civilians.

He said in contacts with Uzbek authorities in both Washington and Tashkent, U.S. diplomats are urging restraint and saying that violence cannot produce the long-term stability needed in the country.

At the same time, Mr. Boucher said the United States also condemns violence by demonstrators on government facilities, including an assault on a prison in the city of Andijon that may have released as many as two thousand inmates, including Muslim extremists convicted of acts of terror.

"On the side of the demonstrators, rioters, whatever you call them, the armed attack by civilians on the prison in Andijon and other government facilities is a kind of violence that we cannot countenance in any way and we condemn these kind of armed attacks on prison facilities and on government facilities. There's nothing that justifies acts of violence or terrorism, and were very concerned at reports of either the release or escape of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan members," he said.

The State Department lists the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, the IMU, as a foreign terrorist organization.

Members of the group trained in Afghanistan before the U.S.-led invasion of that country and are said to have collaborated with al-Qaida.

Mr. Boucher said U.S. officials believe that stability in Uzbekistan ultimately depends on the government of President Islam Karimov reaching out to the citizenry and instituting real reforms, both political and economic, and addressing its human rights problems.

He said the United States is disappointed in the degree of progress seen to date, and will continue to work with the Uzbeks to address all these areas.

Under questioning, spokesman Boucher said the Karimov government has used the label of Islamic extremist too broadly in describing its opponents, and that there needs to be more respect for people who want to peacefully exercise their religion.

On the other hand, he said it is undeniable that Uzbekistan has faced a terrorism problem by real extremists trying to kill people and violently overthrow the government, and that they need to be dealt with as well.

Mr. Karimov, who has been a U.S. ally in anti-terrorism efforts, wields almost total government control and received more than 90 percent of the vote when he was last re-elected in 2000 in a vote widely regarded as tainted.

In its most recent report on global human rights conditions, issued in late February, the State Department called the Tashkent government's record on the issue very poor and accused authorities, among other things, of severely restricting press freedoms and stifling public criticism.