ANDIJAN, Uzbekistan – Uzbek President Islam Karimov (search) rejected a U.N. request for an international probe into last week's government crackdown on demonstrators that reportedly killed hundreds, saying he had the situation under control, Secretary-General Kofi Annan (search) said.
But Karimov denied Annan's account Friday, saying the topic of a probe never came up during their phone conversation. Also, hundreds of people protested in the eastern town that government troops regained from Islamic rebels, but security forces did not intervene.
A top U.N. rights investigator requested that Uzbekistan (search) let him assess the situation but said Friday he had received no response. Philip Alston, U.N. special investigator on illegal and arbitrary executions, said he was "gravely concerned about reports that hundreds of people, including women and children, were killed on May 13 when government troops fired indiscriminately to disperse a demonstration in Andijan."
On Thursday, Annan said Karimov opposed an international investigation into the worst bloodshed in Uzbekistan since the U.S. ally and former Soviet republic gained its independence in 1991.
"He said he had the situation under control and was taking every measure to bring those responsible to account and didn't need an international team to establish the facts," Annan said in New York on Thursday night.
Karimov's office, however, said "no proposals about an independent investigation into the recent events in Andijan were discussed during the conversation," according to a presidential press service statement.
Karimov has blamed Islamic militants for the unrest and denies that his troops fired on unarmed civilians, dismissing claims of rights activists who put the death toll at more than 700. The government says 169 people died in the unrest in the eastern city near Uzbekistan.
Thousands of Muslims worshippers Friday prayed for an end to the violence at mosques across the country. They also rejected the government's contention that the violence was the work of Islamic extremists.
The United States, NATO and other Western nations have intensified pressure on Karimov to allow an international probe into the carnage, but the West's ability to persuade him to budge is limited. The authoritarian Uzbek leader has staunchly resisted calls to end the crackdown on the opposition and allow more democracy since taking the helm before the 1991 Soviet collapse.
In a sign of concern about the situation, Gen. John Abizaid (search), head of U.S. Central Command, said the U.S. military has scaled back its operations from the Central Asian state since the violence broke out.
U.S. forces operate out of an air base in the country in support of its operations in Afghanistan. The base in Khanabad is located in southern Uzbekistan, several hundred miles from the unrest in the east.
"We have decided to make sure that we're cautious about how we're operating," he said, according to a Pentagon transcript of his Wednesday comments to a small group of reporters. The transcript was released Thursday.
Abizaid said the change was not meant to be a message to Uzbekistan's government.
Asked about who was driving the violence, he said: "I think this is a level of violence that's coming probably from a lot of different groups that aren't altogether clear to me."
In Greece, NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer sharply criticized Karimov's government for refusing to allow an international inquiry.
"I am very disappointed ... I reiterate my call to the Uzbek authorities to accept this inquiry," de Hoop Scheffer said. "We are watching very closely."
Government troops opened fire on demonstrators in Andijan (search), the nation's fourth-largest city, after protesters stormed the prison, freed inmates and then seized local government offices, taking officials hostage. While the government says 169 people died, opposition figures and rights activists say more than 700 were killed — more than 500 in Andijan and about 200 in nearby Pakhtabad — and most were civilians.
The Andijan riots triggered an uprising in nearby Korasuv on the Kyrgyzstan (search) border, where followers of Bakhtiyor Rakhimov, a farmer-turned-rebel leader, burned government buildings and drove away authorities Saturday. Government troops backed by helicopters reclaimed control before sunrise Thursday, quickly arresting Rakhimov, who had vowed to build an Islamic state.
About 20 of Rakhimov's associates were arrested, his sister, Yulduz, said. On Friday, about 500 Korasuv residents gathered at the administration building to protest the death of one man who was arrested.
Scores of police stood guard at the building but did not move to quell the protest, said Alexei Volosevich, a local journalist at the scene.
The Uzbek Foreign Ministry condemned its neighbor for letting more than 500 Uzbeks fleeing the violence cross the border and said weak controls had led to "serious riots" and actions staged by religious groups.
"The local Kyrgyz authorities didn't control the situation," the ministry said in a note handed to the Kyrgyz ambassador. "The situation may spin out of control if they continue to fail to take necessary steps."
In Andijan, Muslims headed to Devonaboi Jome mosque in the old town for Friday prayers.
"We will pray for peace so that there will be no more bloodshed," said Mirzorakhim Khodji, the mosque's deputy imam. Uzbekistan's mosques are tightly controlled by the government, which watches closely for any sign of dissent.
Addressing more than 1,000 believers who gathered in the mosque and gathered nearby, Imam Muhammad Sadyk said the violence in Andijan was the work of "bands of bandits."
"Please don't follow these people," he said. "If you see crowds of people, stay away. Even if you're interested, don't do it."
An overflow crowd attended Friday prayers in the Shaikh Zainitdin mosque in the capital, Tashkent. The mosque accommodates 12,000 but the crowd spilled outside, with some worshippers kneeling on the steps outside.
Razik, 50, who only gave his first name out of fear of reprisal, said the violence in Andijan was triggered by Karimov's repressive policies.
"It was people who rose up because of the lack of democracy here," Razik said. "It wasn't an Islamic uprising."
The May 13 protest was triggered by a trial of 23 local Islamic businessmen. Many of the demonstrators were citizens complaining about poverty and unemployment.