ANDIJAN, Uzbekistan – Soldiers opened fire on thousands of protesters in eastern Uzbekistan (search) on Friday after demonstrators stormed a jail to free 23 men accused of Islamic extremism. At least 50 people may have been killed in clashes with police and security forces, a protest leader said.
Protesters fell to the ground as the troops surrounded the crowd of some 4,000 and started shooting outside the city's administration building, which had been seized by the demonstrators. An Associated Press reporter saw 10 people who apparently had been hit, including at least one dead, and participants in the rally said two more had been killed.
As soldiers continued shooting with what sounded like large-caliber gunfire and automatic weapons, one man sobbed, "Oh, my son! He's dead!"
Uzbekistan is a key U.S. ally in the War on Terror, providing an air base to support military operations in neighboring Afghanistan (search) following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. But the closer ties with Washington have drawn increased international attention to widespread human rights abuses in the former Soviet republic, whose authoritarian government is seen as one of the most repressive in the region.
President Islam Karimov (search) and other government leaders were returning late Friday from Andijan, a high-ranking Uzbek official said on condition of anonymity. The move could indicate that the president believed troops had restored control in the city.
Andijan is in the volatile, impoverished Fergana Valley (search), where Islamist sentiment is high, provoking tensions with the secular government that tolerates only officially approved Muslim observances.
Karimov had rushed to Andijan, where the government said it remained in control despite the chaos, although it blocked foreign news reports of the clashes for its domestic audience. Neighboring Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, which share the Fergana Valley, sealed their borders.
In Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said the situation in eastern Uzbekistan was stabilizing.
"First of all, this is an internal matter for Uzbekistan," Lavrov said. "We've been closely watching information on development of the situation in this country, and recent information shows that it's being stabilized."
The shootings by the soldiers followed an overnight jailbreak of the 23 Islamic businessmen, whose supporters stormed the prison where they were held. Their supporters, who seized weapons after attacking a military unit, later clashed with police.
There were varying reports about casualties amid the chaos. Protest leader Kabuljon Parpiyev told AP that as many as 50 people may have been killed during the course of the day.
Witnesses and officials put the toll from an earlier clash at nine dead and 34 injured. Two of the dead were children, Sharif Shakirov, a brother of one of the defendants said, adding that 30 soldiers who shot at demonstrators were being held hostage.
Shakirov told AP the jailbreak was triggered by news that security services Thursday had started rounding up people involved in a sit-in outside the courthouse where the trial was taking place.
Uzbeks in recent weeks have shown increasing willingness to challenge their authoritarian leadership in protests, apparently bolstered by the March uprising in Kyrgyzstan that drove out President Askar Akayev and by similar revolts in Ukraine and Georgia.
The 23 businessmen who were on trial are members of Akramia — a group named for their founder, Akram Yuldashev, an Islamic dissident sentenced in 1999 to 17 years in prison for allegedly urging the overthrow of Uzbekistan's secular government in a pamphlet published in the late 1990s. He has proclaimed his innocence.
Akramis are considered the backbone of Andijan's small business community, running a medical clinic and pharmacy, as well as working as furniture craftsmen, and providing employment to thousands in the Fergana Valley.
But authorities claim they are linked to the outlawed radical Islamic party Hizb-ut-Tahrir, a group that seeks to create a worldwide Islamic state and has been forced underground throughout most of formerly Soviet Central Asia and Russia.
Uzbek authorities blame Hizb-ut-Tahrir for inspiring deadly attacks and bombings last year that killed more than 50 people in Uzbekistan. Hizb-ut-Tahrir, however, claims to disavow violence and has denied responsibility.
The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which is linked to al-Qaida and the Taliban, also fought for establishment of an Islamic state in the valley in the late 1990s. Concerns are high that Fergana could be a flashpoint for destabilizing wide swaths of ex-Soviet Central Asia.
The trial has inspired one of the largest public shows of anger over alleged rights abuses by the government. Parpiyev said that the protesters' main demand was the release of Yuldashev.
"The people have risen," said Valijon Atakhonjonov, a brother of another one of the defendants.
Thousands of protesters massed on the square outside the administration building, where a podium was erected. Protest organizers, some with Kalashnikov automatic rifles strapped across their chests, took turns addressing the crowd through a microphone.
"We want to be allowed to work and do our business without hindrance," Parpiyev, the 42-year-old leader of the protest, told AP.
Many of the men wore square black embroidered skullcaps, while some were in the white skullcaps favored by observant Muslim Uzbeks. The protesters had posted their own guards on the perimeter of the square.
A nearby theater and cinema were burning. Two dead bodies were splayed near the square — one with a stomach wound, another burned. Several military helicopters circled overhead.
One of the 23 defendants, Abduvosid Egomov, was holed up in a local government compound overrun by protesters who broke up pavement stones to reinforce a metal fence surrounding the compound in efforts to stave off security forces. Some were also preparing Molotov cocktails.
"We are not going to overthrow the government. We demand economic freedom," a pale and thin Egomov told AP.
"If the army is going to storm, if they're going to shoot, we are ready to die instead of living as we are living now. The Uzbek people have been reduced to living like dirt," he said.
Parpiyev said Interior Minister Zakir Almatov had called him in the morning and heard the protesters' demands. Almatov initially agreed to negotiations, but later called back and said the talks were off, Parpiyev said.
"He said, 'We don't care if 200, 300 or 400 people die. We have force and we will chuck you out of there anyway,'" Parpiyev quoted the interior minister as saying.
In a separate incident Friday, a man carrying fake explosives was shot and killed outside the Israeli Embassy in the Uzbek capital of Tashkent. Officials identified him as an unemployed ethnic Russian with a history of mental illness.
Russia's liberal Yabloko party said the unrest was an "alarm bell" for Karimov and for Russian President Vladimir Putin.
"Having fully repressed the democratic opposition, the Karimov regime has not left the Uzbek people any other road than the road of radical Islamism, whose leaders the population is listening to ever more closely," said Sergei Mitrokhin, deputy head of the party.