Thousands flee increasing tensions in Uzbekistan


Families of the hundreds killed when Uzbek troops opened fire to quell protests in Andizhan buried their dead today as witnesses told of bloody mayhem in which women and children were gunned down.

"They shot at us like rabbits," a teenage boy said recalling the horror of troops rampaging through the town square on Friday where some 3,000 protesters had rallied in support of rebels holed up in a state building with police hostages.

A Russian news agency also reported that Uzbek troops had fired on civilians trying to flee into neighbouring Kyrgyzstan to escape the violence in their homeland.

Uzbekistan's president, Islam Karimov, said yesterday no order had been given to troops to fire in Andizhan. He said he had forbidden the use of force against women, children and the elderly.

Mr Karimov, a close ally in the US war on terrorism since giving Washington an airbase in 2001, said 10 police and troops had been killed and a higher number of rebels had also died. He gave no figure for civilians killed.

But two days after an uprising in the mostly Muslim Central Asian state's Ferghana Valley, blood and body parts could still be seen on sidewalks and in gutters in the centre of this leafy city of 300,000 people.

The facade of the two-storey School No. 15, the scene witnesses said of a massacre of civilians and police being held hostage, was pockmarked with at least 20 bullet holes.

Andizhan violence started early on Friday when armed rebels freed from prison comrades standing trial for religious extremism. They took 10 police hostage and occupied Andizhan's local government building backed by thousands of sympathisers.

A local human rights campaigner estimated up to 500 people may have been killed in the ensuing operation to crush the protests, which would make it the bloodiest incident in Uzbekistan's post-Soviet history.

The bloodshed prompted up to 4,000 people to flee to the closed border with Kyrgyzstan.

Mr Karimov, criticised by Western human rights groups for jailing dissident Muslims, said the rebels belonged to the outlawed Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir and were to blame for the violence. Hizb ut-Tahrir denied involvement.

Uzbekistan is one of the world's leading cotton exporters, produces gold and has some oil and gas reserves. But its largely state-controlled economy has failed to attract investment.