ON the evening of Sunday, Dec. 2, in a burst of violence as sudden as it was deadly, five soldiers and at least three townsfolk died in a clash in the quiet Uzbek city of Namangan. Tens more were injured and thousands of demonstrating Uzbek youth and police battled in two days of riots that followed. The incident has shaken the leadership here in the capital of this Central Asian republic and reverberated back to Moscow. Initial Soviet news-media reports portrayed the event as an unprovoked attack on Soviet soldiers by ``militant'' youth. The accounts painted dark overtones of anti-Army and anti-Russian acts by fanatic Muslim Central Asians.
The Uzbek government and the democratic nationalist movement reject these views as unfounded lies. They deny any national or religious motive is behind the violence.
Some see the hand of Moscow seeking to blacken the reputation of Uzbeks. Others construct conspiratorial tales of deliberate manipulation by a dying empire that seeks to preserve itself by provoking ethnic conflict as an excuse to deploy its armed forces.
In any case, what happened at Namangan reveals the depth of anger and emotion that lies not far from the apparently tranquil surface of the largest of the four Central Asian republics. The evidence suggests religious feelings played a major role, perhaps for the first time, in prompting a violent clash in this predominantly Islamic part of the Soviet Union.
City is Islamic center
Although all the details are far from clear, a picture does emerge from accounts in the local press and from interviews with government officials and democratic activists who went to Namangan to investigate the incident.
Namangan lies deep in the heartland of Uzbekistan, in the fertile Fergana Valley, where the majority of Uzbeks live. It is by numerous accounts a peaceful town, because of its highly religious population. Namangan is the center of Islamic fundamentalism in Uzbekistan, says Abdul Rashid, representative of the Uzbek Popular movement Birlik, which unites democratic and nationalist activists. Islam's power is attested by the virtual absence of crime and almost no drinking of alcohol, Mr. Rashid says.
Even in June 1989, when riots swept the Fergana Valley as Uzbeks youths fought ethnic Turks from the Caucasus, there was no trouble in Namangan. Since those riots, battalions of special Interior Ministry troops, equipped for riot control, have been stationed throughout the valley, one of them in Namangan.
On Dec. 2 at about 5 p.m. a group of six soldiers - four or five of them ethnic Russians - boarded bus No. 21, purportedly to return to their barracks.
``They were drunk,'' says Ibrahim Iskanderov, vice president of the Uzbek Academy of Sciences, repeating the findings of a report delivered to the Uzbek Communist Party Central Committee by the head of the government investigating committee.
Col. A.P. Kim, the deputy military prosecutor of the Turkestan military district, in an interview Dec. 6 in Pravda Vostoka, the Uzbek party daily, denied any guilt on the part of the soldiers, but admitted ``four of them shared a bottle of vodka.''
Soldiers fought with teenagers
All accounts agree that the soldiers got into a fist fight on the bus with local teenage youths. The cause, say various Uzbek sources, was an attempt by the soldiers to molest some women.
``Namangan is a religious town,'' explains Mahmud Imakov, a Birlik activist who went there to investigate the incident. ``Not even Uzbeks dare to touch women. Russians have never been known to do so.''
As the fight raged, the bus driver pulled into the town's central square. The driver shouted to a gathering crowd that women had been attacked, their dresses torn. According to Colonel Kim, the crowd grew rapidly to about 1,500 people, mostly youths.
Birlik investigators claim about 50 militiamen (police) were present but did not try to stop the mob, Birlik investigators say. At some point, the bus was set ablaze with at least two of the soldiers burned inside. Five soldiers died and one was rescued by townsfolk, but was badly injured.
By Kim's account, the crowd swelled to 3,500. Armed Interior Ministry troops arrived with four armored personnel carriers bringing the law enforcement strength to 700.
``The soldiers were ordered to fire in the air, but chauvinists among them fired below the waist line,'' says Mahmud Ali Makmudov, secretary of the Uzbek Writer's Union. He bases his story on a first-hand account told to him by a Namangan resident. Official reports say three people died, but Birlik activists believe at least seven were killed.
Clashes spanned two days
For the next two days, thousands of youths repeatedly clashed with militia and troops. Democratic activists link these events to the violent ethnic clashes in Fergana and those between Uzbeks and Kirghiz in the Kirghiz town of Osh last summer.
``It is a scenario of provocation used by the Moscow mafia,'' says Mr. Makmudov, referring to conservative Communists and enemies of reform.
Uzbeks also deny charges that anti-Army feelings were behind the violence. Uzbek families are large and many have at least one son in the Army, they point out. But Uzbek activists do express anger over the high number of deaths of Uzbek soldiers in the Soviet Army because of what they say is racist violence.
Such assessments, though in slightly less conspiratorial tones, are even echoed by the Uzbek Communist Party. Though the party is considered one of the Soviet Union's most conservative, it is increasingly reflecting the growth in Uzbek nationalism.
There are those in Moscow who want ``to compromise the republic, to paint it black'' asserts party Central Committee member Iskanderov. ``This republic is more stable. That makes certain people angry. We have no hunger; no strikes.''
Mr. Iskanderov and other officials strongly reject the idea that either nationalism or religious fundamentalism was behind the anger in Namangan. Timour Valyev, a thoughtful computer scientist and member of the Uzbek Presidential Council, sees the roots of violence in the potent combination of teenagers and a depressed economy.