Uzbek Opposition, Gov't Dispute Death Toll

Uzbekistan's top prosecutor said Tuesday that 169 people were killed in last week's violence in the eastern town of Andijan (search), a figure far lower than that compiled by the opposition after violence that has threatened the stability of this former Soviet republic.

More deaths were reported Tuesday in Andijan, where government troops in full combat gear were deployed behind concrete barricades.

Prosecutor-General Rashid Kadyrov's estimate was far below the more than 500 cited earlier in the day by an opposition political party that has been polling alleged victims' relatives.

Kadyrov said 32 of those who died were government troops, and he indicated that the others were militants.

"Only terrorists were liquidated by government forces," he told a news conference with President Islam Karimov (search) at his side — a statement contradicting the accounts of witnesses to Friday's violence in the fourth-largest city in this U.S. ally in Central Asia.

Karimov had told a news conference Saturday that 10 soldiers and "many more" insurgents had been killed. He did not say anything about civilian deaths.

Earlier Tuesday, an Uzbek opposition leader said her party compiled a list of 745 people allegedly killed by government troops, the highest estimate so far, and that many were shot in the back of the head.

Nigara Khidoyatova (search), leader of the Free Peasants party, said 542 people were killed in Andijan and 203 people died in subsequent clashes in Pakhtabad (search), another city in the eastern Fergana Valley near the Kyrgyzstan (search) border. Khidoyatova said her party arrived at those figures by speaking to relatives of those killed, and the count was continuing.

"Soldiers were roaming the streets and shooting at innocent civilians," Khidoyatova told The Associated Press. "Many victims were shot in the back of the head."

Khidoyatova said party representatives talked to victims' relatives and attended funerals, including that of 18-year-old Sardor Khasanov, an Andijan resident who walked out to buy a loaf of bread and was shot in the back of the head.

"The count hasn't yet finished, and the death toll will rise," she said.

Last week's unrest was the worst since the former Soviet republic won independence in 1991. The violence puts the United States in a difficult position because it relies on Karimov's government for an air base in the country and anti-terrorism support.

The crackdown in Andijan came Friday after protesters stormed a prison, freed inmates and then seized local government offices. However, many of the demonstrators were citizens complaining about poverty and unemployment.

Karimov's government has blamed the violence on Islamic militants. However, an AP reporter and other journalists witnessed troops opening fire on the crowd at Andijan's central square.

"Relatives of the victims are in shock, and they can't understand why their close ones were killed," Khidoyatova told the AP. "Once the funerals are over, they aren't going to let it go unpunished and will take revenge. They are boiling with anger."

In Pakhtabad, virtually all the victims were women and children apparently trying to flee violence by heading toward Kyrgyzstan, Khidoyatova said.

"They were refugees trying to escape," she said.

Khidoyatova said she believed the unrest would spread to other cities in the impoverished, densely populated valley.

"It's the beginning of the end of Karimov's regime," she said.

Security remained tight in Andijan on Tuesday, with armored vehicles guarding approaches to official buildings and troops in full combat gear watching from behind concrete barricades. Men were digging fresh graves at neighborhood cemeteries under the watch of Uzbek security service agents.

Witnesses said an armored personnel carrier fired at a vehicle trying to leave the city, killing several passengers. The victims allegedly were businessmen connected to Akramia — a group of observant Islamic businessmen at the focus of the unrest.

In another Andijan neighborhood, about 20 troops in full gear, some wearing balaclava masks, came in an armored personnel carrier to arrest a criminal suspect, pointing sniper rifles around to prevent people from coming too close.

The Bush administration has said it is "deeply disturbed" by reports that Uzbek authorities fired on demonstrators. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Monday the United States was "still trying to understand" what happened in Andijan.

"The main preoccupations are now to encourage everybody to forgo any further violence, to help with the refugees that went into Kyrgyzstan out of Uzbekistan (search), and to try to deal with the consequences right now of this set of issues," she said.

The administration also has expressed concern that Muslim extremists had escaped from the prison and has urged Karimov's government to give the international Red Cross full access to the region.

Cemetery workers hastily buried 37 bodies in a mass grave in Andijan on Tuesday as residents mourned the dead.

The bodies were wrapped in traditional white shrouds before being placed in a common pit at a cemetery in the southern part of the city. Cemetery members refused to identify the bodies and the grave — dug at a distance other graves — was marked only by a small sign.

Karimov, viewed as one of the most authoritarian leaders still in control of a former Soviet republic, cut his political teeth under the old communist system which brooked no civil disobedience. Before the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991, many regional leaders ordered military or police attacks against their own people when they massed in protest in places like Georgia, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan.