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Uzbek violence challenges leader's hard line

Troops in Andijon killed hundreds of antigovernment protesters over the weekend. Sunday, an uneasy calm held.

By CorrespondentS of The Christian Science Monitor, Peter BoehmCorrespondentS of The Christian Science Monitor / May 16, 2005



MOSCOW; AND NAMANGAN, UZBEKISTAN

As a tense calm returned to Uzbekistan Sunday in the wake of weekend clashes that killed hundreds of protesters, speculation mounted about President Islam Karimov's ability to maintain his grip on power.

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The violence in the eastern city of Andijon, sparked by charges of "religious extremism" against 23 businessmen, was the worst in a string of reprisals over the past year against those trying to air political and economic grievances.

Experts say Mr. Karimov's tough, secular dictatorship has jailed thousands of dissidents in recent years on such charges even as the country's 26 million people have faced economic hardships. But its authority may be starting to crack under the weight of a popular revolt in March in neighboring Kyrgyzstan as well as pro-democracy rhetoric from President Bush during a swing through the former Soviet Union last week.

"On Saturday, President Karimov admitted for the first time that there is corruption in government, and a lot of social problems," says Marina Pikulina, a Tashkent-based expert with the independent Conflict Studies Research Center. "That is a clear sign that he sees the situation as very grave."

Uzbek authorities allege that Islamic terrorists are behind a wave of bombings, riots, and spontaneous protests in the former Soviet republic. But experts say the picture is far more complex. "Popular discontent has been growing in Uzbekistan for a long time, mainly caused by unsolved deep social problems," says Viktor Korgun, a specialist with the Institute of Oriental Studies in Moscow. "The Fergana Valley is a knot of problems: it has the highest population density, severe water shortages, the highest level of unemployment, and some growth of Islamic extremism. People there feel themselves in a desperate situation."

The Andijon upheaval was triggered by the trial last week of the businessmen - the biggest employers in the impoverished city of 300,000.

On Friday morning, crowds that included armed men stormed Andijon's jail, releasing 2,000 prisoners - including the defendants.

Sketchy reports from the town said many of the escapees subsequently holed up in a government building, while thousands of supporters gathered peacefully on the square outside. Troops poured in and, amid sporadic armed resistance and some rioting, opened fire.

Some reports put the death toll as high as 500. Hundreds more were reportedly trying to cross the border into neighboring Kyrgyzstan.

At a press conference, Karimov blamed the violence on Islamic militants. "No one ordered security forces to fire at [the protesters]," he said. But "to accept [the demonstrators'] terms would mean that we are setting the precedent that no other country in the world would accept."

Experts say evidence against those charged with religious extremism is often flimsy and sometimes fabricated. "Sometimes they arrest people who have little to do with Islamic ideas, maybe because they were not supportive enough of the regime," says Vitaly Naumkin, director of the independent Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Moscow.

Authorities claimed that the defendants were leaders of a shadowy Islamic group called Akramia, named for local Muslim activist, Akram Yuldashev, who's been in jail for years. Prosecutors charged that Akramia is a of Huzb-ut-Tahrir, a pan-Islamic party based in London that calls for a worldwide Muslim caliphate.

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