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Report Accuses Uzbek Government of a 'Massacre'


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

The group Human Rights Watch is calling last month's government crackdown on protesters in Uzbekistan a massacre. Theirs is the first comprehensive, independent report into the bloodshed in the Central Asian republic. But because of restrictions by the Uzbek government, the human rights group says key questions can only be answered with an international investigation. Among those questions: How many people were killed? From Moscow, NPR's Anne Garrels reports.

ANNE GARRELS reporting:

Since May 13th, when Uzbek troops put down a prison breakout and demonstrations in the city of Andijan, Uzbek President Islom Karimov has blocked outside investigations, insisting troops were fighting Islamist militants and that any civilians struck were felled either by accident or by militant gunfire. The Uzbek government says 173 were killed. Human Rights Watch and others, who managed to get into the region secretly, believe the number of much higher.

What is not disputed is that armed gunmen attacked a prison to free 23 businessmen, who had been on trial for allegedly being Islamic extremists. As many as six guards were killed. Hostages were taken. But Ken Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, says the thousands of demonstrators who eventually turned up on the streets were largely unarmed. He says the government's response was unnecessary.

Mr. KEN ROTH (Executive Director, Human Rights Watch): All of these crimes could have been prosecuted by the government. Instead the government used force way beyond any threat posed by these crimes.

GARRELS: According to Human Rights Watch, the Uzbek government refused protesters' demands for negotiations. Troops sealed off the square, and according to eyewitnesses, government soldiers systematically mowed down a group of about 300 as they tried to escape.

Mr. ROTH: Only a handful of people survived. Indeed, if somebody lifted their head up from the ground, the troops started shooting at them again.

GARRELS: An unknown number of those who managed to escape were also killed. President Karimov has blamed armed terrorists for trying to overthrow the state and install Islamic rule in the ex-Soviet republic. Roth says his investigation contradicts this.

Mr. ROTH: All of the speeches and the main idea that brought the crowds together was government repression, the unfair trial being given to the 23 businessmen, unemployment and governmental mismanagement, not Islam.

GARRELS: Uzbekistan has a long record of abuses. And Human Rights Watch accuses the government of a cover-up by destroying evidence, intimidating witnesses and removing all bodies, except those of young men fitting the profile of militants it blames for the violence. President Karimov, regarded as a useful ally in the fight against terrorism, has provided Washington with an air base for its operations in next-door Afghanistan. But Roth argues support for Karimov will backfire on the US.

Mr. ROTH: The Bush administration has been too willing to disregard abuses committed in the name of fighting terrorism. I mean, President Karimov has been very skillful at using the magic words. Whenever he engages in repression of peaceful political opposition, he claims that he is targeting extremist Islamic terrorists.

GARRELS: If the Uzbek government continues to resist calls for an international investigation, Roth says the Bush administration should withdraw its military base from Uzbekistan and bring to an end its post-September 11th strategic partnership.

The International Red Cross has said Uzbekistan's government is denying it access to people injured or arrested in the unrest. And in the wake of the violence and the Bush administration's muted response, the State Department has warned of possible violence against US targets in the country. Anne Garrels, NPR News, Moscow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anne Garrels