Uzbeks fleeing across border to seek refuge

Sunday, May 15, 2005

Map of Uzbekistan
Map of Uzbekistan

Thousands of Uzbeks are fleeing across Uzbekistan's borders to seek refuge in neighboring Kyrgyzstan despite the border crossings being closed. Their flight is in response to the violence in Andijan.

Thousands are said to have taken to the streets of the city to protest the unfair trial of Muslim activists and draw attention to human rights abuses. A trial of 23 local businessmen on charges of religious extremism triggered the protests. Soldiers opened fire on the demonstrators, killing many. Eyewitnesses have said that they were unarmed civilians.

It is still unknown how many died as a result. Some reports have given the death count as high as 500, with other estimates as low as a dozen. UK Foreign Secretary Jack Straw called it "a clear abuse of human rights". Many have expressed doubts that the true figure may ever emerge.

Even with Uzbekistan's borders closed, hundreds are reported to have already crossed into Kyrgyzstan. In Korasuv, an Uzbek border town, government buildings were reported to be on fire in addition to frequent clashes between government police and civilians seeking to cross the border.

Government troops have sealed Andijan, and they are hunting the leaders of protests against the Uzbek government.

Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov blamed Islamic militants for the violence in the eastern city of Andijan. The turbulence led to government troops firing on civilian protesters and rebels, killing at least fifty according to local hospital sources. Independent sources count the number of dead over 100.

Sunday, President Karimov denied directing his troops to open fire, blaming the outlawed Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir for the deaths following their insurrection.

"I know you want to know who gave the order to fire at them ... No one ordered (troops) to fire at them," Karimov told the news conference in Tashkent on Sunday.

Eyewitnesses reported seeing crowds of unarmed protesters being fired upon by soldiers. Human rights groups have lamented Uzbekistan's poor human rights record of arbitrary arrest and torture. The White House has called for restraint to avoid further bloodshed. The Russian Foreign Ministry has expressed support for Kamirov in the face of what it terms extremism.

The White House's muted response may reflect the political sensitivity of its air base in southern Uzbekistan which supports its operations in neighbouring Afghanistan. It's widely feared that, should the unrest spread, Uzbekistan may see the popular overthrow of the government as occurred in neighbouring Kyrgystan.