Authorities in Uzbekistan have lost control of a key border town in the eastern Ferghana valley, despite a brutal clampdown that has so far claimed the lives of an estimated 700 people.
If reports of further killings can be confirmed the violence would be the most brutal of its kind in Asia since China gunned down hundreds of democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square in 1989.
The hardline government of Islam Karimov, an ally of London and Washington in the "war on terror", has dispatched an armoured force into the restive area in the east of the country after mass arrests of alleged radical Islamists sparked what appeared to be a popular uprising.
Saidjahon Zaynabitdinov, head of Appeal, a local human rights advocacy group, said troops had killed about 200 demonstrators on Saturday in Pakhtabad, just outside the city of Andijan, where witnesses saw security forces kill up to 500 civilians the previous night.
United Nations officials, rights groups and Kyrgyz border police said thousands of refugees who were fleeing the violence in and around Andijan had made for the nearby border area, leading to further unrest.
Security forces loyal to the regime of Mr Karimov had last night sealed off the town of Korasuv on the border with Kyrgyzstan.
Heavily armed police set up roadblocks on the approach to Korasuv and officials admitted they had lost control of the town, which is an economic lifeline to the more affluent and liberal Kyrgyzstan .
"There is no police in there and there is no civil administration there," a police official said.
Andijan itself has been turned into a civilian ghost town. The city, which has a population of 300,000, was dominated yesterday by a massive military presence, reinforced by police on every street corner as the government reluctantly relaxed the strict controls in which reporters were ejected and the area sealed off on Sunday.
Outside the prison compound where 23 local businessman had been held in the incident that sparked the protests, a wrecked car sprayed with bullet holes gave an indication of the scale of fighting.
In the city centre, armoured personnel carriers, tanks and army trucks underlined the sense of a city under siege, while lorries loaded with soldiers carrying automatic rifles rumbled through.
The headquarters of the regional administration, where the protesters gathered in support of the insurrection, was still blocked off by soldiers. The blackened and charred upper storeys of what had been the nerve centre of Mr Karimov's authority, pock-marked with bullet holes, bore witness to the fighting.
Mr Karimov has sought to blame the violence on radical Islamists with alleged links to al-Qa'ida attempting to overthrow the secular government in Tashkent. But human rights groups and independent observers, including the former British ambassador Craig Murray, say Mr Karimov was leading a brutal police state, propped up by the arbitrary detention and torture of Muslim dissidents protesting at the desperate economic conditions.
Separatist movements in the Ferghana valley, which runs across the eastern border into Kyrgyzstan, sprang up in the early Nineties in response to Tashkent's persecution of minorities in the area. The security forces have waged a ruthless campaign to crush both the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which seeks a Muslim state in Ferghana, and Hizb ut-Tahrir, another Islamist group whose members have been blamed for a bomb attack and labelled "terrorists" by the Karimov regime.
Sympathy for the protesters has spread as far as the capital, where a small gathering of people risked the wrath of the authorities to lay flowers in commemoration of the bloodiest days of fighting in the country's post-Soviet era.
"It was a black day in Uzbek history. We are ashamed," said Tashpulat Yuldashev, a political analyst. "We dissidents have been long been afraid of standing up to express our discontent. But this time we can't stay silent," he said.
Many of the activists were wearing black armbands and ribbons.
The rebellion in the Ferghana valley has given the country's fragmented and disorganised opposition movement a fresh momentum to unite and openly express opinions, Mr Yuldashev added. Opposition parties are banned from running in elections.
State television has so far ignored the uprising, while Western and Russian broadcasts have been cut off since the clashes began on Friday.Reuse content