WASHINGTON -- Human rights watchdogs are urging government restraint and independent probes of the bloodshed in Uzbekistan, a key ally in what the administration of President George W. Bush calls its ''war on terror.''
Amnesty International, in a statement, said it ''strongly condemns the reported use of excessive force against civilians in Andijan and calls on the authorities of Uzbekistan to allow a prompt and independent investigation into the events with the results made public and those responsible brought to justice.''
''The vast majority of the thousands of protestors gathered in the town's main square calling for justice and an end to poverty were unarmed and peaceful. Nevertheless troops are said to have opened fire on the crowd from armored personnel carriers without warning, shooting indiscriminately at men, women and children as they fled from the main square in panic,'' Amnesty said.
The organization said Monday that it remained ''greatly concerned that the Uzbekistani authorities will use the events in Andijan to justify a further clampdown on dissent and freedom of expression in Uzbekistan and that this will lead to waves of arbitrary arrests nationwide in the name of 'national security' and the 'war against terror'.''
Amnesty called on the authorities to use only proportionate force as necessary to protect life in keeping with the United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials.
Estimates of the death toll by local rights groups and hospital personnel ranged as high as 750 and included scores of people said to have been shot while trying to flee to neighboring Kyrgyzstan over the weekend.
Uzbekistani authorities have said 169 people died after troops exchanged gunfire with armed insurgents.
President Islam Karimov has laid blame for the violence, which erupted May 13, at the feet of Islamist militants, whom he accused of storming Andijan's prison and freeing all of its 1,200-odd inmates--including 23 alleged comrades suspected of terrorism.
Andijan remained under a news blackout Tuesday but a delegation of foreign diplomats reportedly arrived in the town Wednesday after Western nations persuaded the government in Tashkent to allow an international fact-finding visit.
Washington, which initially focused on the potential threat posed by the freeing of suspected terrorists, on Tuesday said it was pressing Tashkent to renounce secrecy and repression.
''We have made clear to Uzbek authorities that stability depends on reaching out to their citizenry and instituting real democratic reform and respect for rule of law,'' State Department spokesman Richard Boucher told reporters. ''Repression and violence will in no way lead to long-term stability but to the reverse.''
The United States has maintained an air base in Uzbekistan since shortly after the Sep. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on U.S. soil.
Analysts at EurasiaNet, a project of billionaire philanthropist George Soros's Open Society Institute, questioned Tashkent's account of the violence, its body count, and its assertion that Islamist radicals started the trouble.
''The blood began to spill on May 13, when government troops retook the center of the Ferghana Valley city of Andijan, leaving 500 or more dead and producing a wave of would-be refugees streaming toward the nearby border with Kyrgyzstan,'' the organization said in a written assessment.
''An Uzbek human rights group claimed that a clash in Pakhtabad on May 14 between government troops and Uzbeks trying to cross over to Kyrgyzstan left another 200 dead. Sporadic violence continued to be reported in Andijan and nearby border towns on May 16. Government troops have cordoned off the area and are tightly controlling access to Andijan and Kara-Suu, a town on the Kyrgyz border.''
Karimov, in comments made May 14, said the government had information linking a radical Islamic group, dubbed Akromiya, to the confrontation in Andijan. He said the group, which he portrayed as an offshoot of the underground Islamic radical movement Hizb-ut-Tahrir, had plotted for ''at least three to six months to prepare the attack on Andijan,'' according to EurasiaNet.
''Though Karimov spoke of Akromiya as though it was a well-documented organization, Uzbek officials have yet to produce hard evidence of its existence,'' EurasiaNet said. ''Indeed, Uzbek officials have routinely blamed Islamic radicals for a variety of bloody events--such as the four-day uprising in Tashkent in March 2004 and the suicide bombings at the U.S. and Israeli embassies last summer--without providing proof that could substantiate claims that Uzbekistan is the target of an international terrorist conspiracy.''
Rather, it added, ''protest participants, including some who escaped to Kyrgyzstan, said the trigger for the unrest was the government's decision to arrest 23 local businessmen on suspicion of belonging to Akromiya.''
Local residents reportedly told a EurasiaNet correspondent that the detainees had nothing to do with Islamic radical activity. The entrepreneurs were described as devout Muslims who had become popular in Andijan by carrying out a wide array of charitable activity, including programs to assist the most impoverished local residents. The government, which is keen to monopolize authority, acted against the entrepreneurs out of concern that their philanthropy could some day be translated into political power, local residents said.
The trial of the 23 entrepreneurs sparked peaceful protests outside Andijan's courthouse on May 11-12. Trying to quell the protests before the judges announced their verdict, local officers rounded up supporters of the 23. It was an effort by friends and relatives to secure the release of these detainees that sparked the chain-reaction of events that culminated in the showdown on the evening of May 13, said EurasiaNet, citing local observers. The organization maintains a network of sources in the Central Asian country.
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