Hundreds of civilians killed after protests turn to massacre

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The Independent Online

As Uzbekistan awoke to the scale of the massacre of Andijan yesterday, the city in the Ferghana valley was enclosed in a ring of steel, with roadblocks ensuring no one got in or out of the scene of the country's bloodiest day in the post-Soviet era. The quiet was broken only by the barking of orders from military commanders and the sporadic rattle of gunfire.

As Uzbekistan awoke to the scale of the massacre of Andijan yesterday, the city in the Ferghana valley was enclosed in a ring of steel, with roadblocks ensuring no one got in or out of the scene of the country's bloodiest day in the post-Soviet era. The quiet was broken only by the barking of orders from military commanders and the sporadic rattle of gunfire.

Inside the city, out of the reach of international observers, survivors were burying the victims of what the regime of Islam Karimov was calling a victory against Islamic insurgents. Witnesses described it as a slaughter of civilians.

Gulboxior Turajewa, from a medical charity working in the city, was among the few independent witnesses able to gain entrance to the school that saw the worst of the fighting after protesters fled the square outside the regional government's offices. Pools of blood mixed with water and dirt could be seen in the blocked, open drains, she said. A blood-soaked baseball cap lay in bushes.

She described the scene inside the pockmarked walls of the technical college, simply named "School No 15", where hundreds of bodies were laid out in rows. "Outside there was a large bloodstain that no one had cleared away," she told The Independent. "At first the guards wouldn't let me in; they also stopped the others who had come to search for relatives among the dead."

She estimated that as many as 500 bodies were laid out in the grounds, but was prevented by guards from making a proper count. "Only three or four of the corpses had uniforms on. All the others riddled with gunshot wounds were wearing civilian clothing," she said.

Ms Turajewa's count was verified by a local doctor, who spoke on condition of anonymity. She told the Associated Press about 500 bodies were laid out in rows at a school. It was unclear how she arrived at her estimate.

Witnesses said the initial toll from the clashes on Friday rose after soldiers started collecting bodies on Saturday. "Those wounded who tried to get away were finished with single shots from a Kalashnikov," said one witness, a businessman. "Three or four soldiers were assigned to killing the wounded."

An Andijan resident reached by phone said gunfire rang out briefly near the city market yesterday afternoon, but there were no further reports of clashes. The resident said that scores of troops backed by armoured vehicles were deployed around the city's main avenues, and that authorities had begun to detain relatives of several suspected participants in the unrest.

The Independent made two attempts to bypass the checkpoints around the city but our reporter was briefly threatened with detention and then escorted to the nearby city of Namangan, under the guard of a man who identified himself as a police colonel.

On the streets of Namangan the few locals were dismissive of government claims that the fighting had been sparked by Islamic extremists. "It was an uprising by the local people," one resident said.

The protest in Andijan, a city of 300,000 people, was said to have been triggered by the trial of 23 businessmen on charges of setting up an Islamic group aimed at overthrowing the government. Many believe the charges were trumped up by officials who wanted to seize the property of the accused.

The trouble began when a group of armed rebels on Friday freed the businessmen and hundreds of other inmates from prison, seized a government building in the centre and holed themselves up with 10 police hostages. Thousands of sympathisers rallied in a central square for several hours before troops crushed the protest and recovered control of the government building.

President Karimov said the rebels belonged to the outlawed Islamic group Hizb ut-Tahrir. It has denied any involvement.

Poverty and unemployment have also fuelled discontent. Delayed market reforms and tight state regulation have caused a sharp fall in living standards. Average monthly wages have dropped to only £20.

The clashes have prompted thousand of people to flee to the closed border with Kyrgyzstan. "There have been about 1,000 people in the column I was in moving towards the border," Russia's Interfax news agency quoted a refugees as saying. "Uzbekistan troops shot at us several times, although we shouted that we are civilians ... There were wounded and as far as I know four people were killed."

Nearby southern Kyrgyzstan, also part of the Ferghana valley, is home to many ethnic Uzbeks and was the starting point earlier this year for violent protests that led to the overthrow of President Askar Akayev.

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