MOSCOW; AND ANDIJON, UZBEKISTAN — As the turbulence in Uzbekistan quiets, two very different pictures are emerging.
Activists tell a story of a mass atrocity that resulted in the death of hundreds, while the government says they stamped out an armed rebellion and didn't shoot a single unarmed person.
Eyewitnesses and rights workers say that Uzbek security forces went on a rampage against unarmed civilians in Andijon last Friday after the trial of 23 Muslims accused of being radicals sparked widespread protest and a jailbreak.
"Several witnesses say they saw security forces in army uniforms follow injured people Friday evening and kill them with a shot to the head," says Mauzafar Mirza Iskhakov, head of the Andijon branch of Ezgulik, an Uzbek human rights group, which is gathering survivors' accounts.
Witnesses, including local doctors, insist at least 500 people died, mostly unarmed civilians, when security forces indiscriminately opened fire on the crowd with automatic weapons.
Human rights workers also report that at least 200 more protesters may have died at the hands of Uzbek forces in nearby Pakhtabad Saturday. The town remains sealed-off by the army, making independent verification impossible.
Speaking to journalists Tuesday, Uzbek Prosecutor General Rashid Kadyrov insisted that security forces who entered the city of 300,000 acted to put down a revolt by armed terrorists occupying the city hall. "A number of hostages [held by the prison escapees] were killed, including three women and two children," Mr. Kadyrov said. "Law enforcement officers did not shoot at peaceful civilians. Everyone who was killed had weapons."
He said 169 people died in the unrest, 32 of them security officers - much higher than the previous official death toll of 10.
Of the bereaved families interviewed by the Monitor Tuesday in Andijon, two claimed that when they recovered loved ones killed in the melee they discovered the bodies had execution-style gunshot wounds to the back of the head.
Erkin Kodaiberdiev, who lost his son in the events, says that when he ventured out into the streets Saturday to search for him he saw many dead bodies, the majority with bullet wounds to the head.
One witness, who asked not to be named, said he saw a soldier chase an injured man down a street and then flush him from a hiding place behind a clay oven. The soldier ordered the man to stand, and when he did the soldier shot him in the forehead.
While Andijon remains on lockdown, protesters say they have seized the border town of Korasuv, some 25 miles from Andijon, and reopened the long-closed frontier with neighboring Kyrgyzstan.
Bakhtiyor Rakhimov, a self-styled "rebel leader" in Korasuv, a town of 20,000, told the Associated Press that 5,000 activists were ready to resist any return by government forces. "We will be building an Islamic state here in accordance with the Koran," Mr. Rakhimov said. "People are tired of slavery."
An Uzbek government official shrugged off Rakhimov's claim as "nonsense."
But there is little doubt the crisis is the worst that President Islam Karimov has faced in nearly two decades of rule by the former Communist Party chief. Experts say Karimov, a key US ally in the global antiterror war, runs one of the most corrupt and repressive regimes in the former USSR, where false arrest, torture and indiscriminate official violence are commonplace.
"The burden of responsibility for the tragic events lies squarely on the shoulders of President Karimov," Jennifer Windsor, executive director of Freedom House, an NGO partly funded by the US, said in a statement. "His regime has systematically persecuted the Uzbek people, placed innocent people in jail on political charges, seized property and land, and brutally repressed the country's political opposition," she said.
"Continued repression will not stop the violence and poses a distinct risk of furthering it," she said.
Uzbek security forces have sealed off many of the Fergana Valley trouble spots and denied access to journalists, NGOs, and human rights monitors. A group of foreign diplomats escorted by authorities to Andijon on Wednesday were not permitted to visit School No. 15, scene of much of Friday's violence and the place where bodies were later gathered.
Foreign news broadcasts, including CNN, the BBC, and Russia's NTV network have been cut from Uzbek television, leaving most citizens of the country of 26 million completely in the dark about events in the Fergana Valley.