Ten killed as troops open fire to crush protest in Uzbekistan

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The Independent Online

The Uzbek military has violently crushed a mass protest in east Uzbekistan, opening fire on crowds after demonstrators stormed a prison to release 23 businessmen accused of Islamic extremism.

The Uzbek military has violently crushed a mass protest in east Uzbekistan, opening fire on crowds after demonstrators stormed a prison to release 23 businessmen accused of Islamic extremism.

Some reports said that at least 10 people were kiled and as many as 50 civilians were shot by security forces as they attempted to end a stand-off with thousands of protesters camped out in the central square in the town of Andijan.

The soldiers stormed administrative offices where armed insurgents were holding several members of the security forces hostage. Up to 30,000 people had streamed into the square in front of the regional administration building in support of the rebels.

It was the worst flare-up of violence in the central Asian republic, ruled by authoritarian President Islam Karimov, since a spate of bombings last year. The stand-off followed a night of intense fighting, in which at least 10 people were killed and more than 30 injured, official sources said.

Uzbek state television said "armed bandits" stormed a police station and an army barracks on Thursday and seized assault rifles there. They attacked the high-security prison and released up to 2,000 prisoners, including the 23 men. President Karimov flew to Andijan yesterday.

The fighting followed two days of peaceful demonstrations in front of the Andijan court house against the trial of the businessmen.

The hardline Uzbek authorities accuse them of setting up an extremist religious organisation and undermining the constitution. Several thousand people, many of them relatives and employees of the defendants, had gathered to protest against the trial.

At the beginning of the trial in February, the father of one of the defendants, Bakhrom Shakirov, told Forum 18, a lobby group for religious freedom, all the detainees were devout believers but had no political goals. He said they had donated $20,000 (£11,000) to local schools and orphanages. Local human rights groups support this account.

The authorities accuse the men of being followers of Akram Yuldashev, a Muslim dissident and former teacher. In the early Nineties, he gained local prominence by writing a theological pamphlet, TheRight Path, and was imprisoned in the sweep that followed bomb attacks in Tashkent in February 1999. Protest leaders were calling for his release yesterday.

Andijan is an industrial town of 300,000 in the fertile but densely populated Ferghana valley. The region is the most religiously conservative in Uzbekistan and is a hotbed of Islamist militancy. In the summers of 1999, 2000 and 2001 the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), a militant group with close links to the Taliban and al-Qa'ida, staged guerrilla attacks on the valley from mountain hideouts in Tajikistan.

The Uzbek government last year blamed remnants of the IMU for a wave of suicide attacks against Uzbek police and on the US and Israeli embassies. After these attacks suspects admitted to training in South Waziristan, in the tribal areas between Pakistan and Afghanistan, a region widely considered to be an al-Qa'ida stronghold. But there is no sign that the protest in Andijan is anything other than spontaneous. Nor is there any indication that the protesters had help from outside.

Human rights organisations and Western diplomats have frequently criticised the Uzbek government's crackdown on Muslims. Human Rights Watch said that 7,000 non-violent religious prisoners are held in Uzbek prisons.

The European Union blamed the Tashkent government for the violence. "The protests are an indication of the tension built up by the government that has not paid sufficient respect to human rights, rule of law and poverty alleviation," a spokesman for the European Commission said.

Britain and America, which has an air base in Uzbekistan, called last night on the government and demonstrators to show restraint. The country is also one of the US's key allies in the "war on terror"

The US State Department expressed concern that some IMU militants might have been among the freed prisoners.

In Russia, there were warnings that the clashes in the former Soviet republic may be the precursor of unrest that could spread across the country. Protesters may feel emboldened after the "tulip revolution" in neighbouring Kyrgyzstan that swept President Askar Akayev from power two months ago.