It hits the fan in Uzbekistan

The ongoing protests in Uzbekistan’s eastern city of Andijan exploded into violence yesterday as demonstrators stormed a jail in an effort to free 23 men accused of membership in an Islamist organization and soldiers responded by opening fire on the crowd of some 4,000, leaving a an initially confirmed nine dead and as many as 50 wounded. Reports indicate that at least some of the defendants were freed, and that protesters also attacked other official buildings. Some were reported firing back at soldiers from the crowd. “The people have risen,” said Valijon Atakhonjonov, the brother of one of defendants. The defendants are accused of belonging to the Akramia Islamic organization, and of having contacts with the outlawed Hizb-ut-Tahrir movement. (AP, IHT, al-Jazeera, May 13)

The death toll is widely disputed. “The total number of deaths could reach 500 from both sides,” Saidzhakhon Zainatbitdinov, the local head of Uzbek human rights group Appeal, told Reuters by phone from the eastern town. (Pakistan Daily Times, May 15) By the next day, Uzbekistan’s President, Islam Karimov, had raised his estimate of the death toll to 30, but denied soldiers had been ordered to fire and blamed the violence on Hizb-ut-Tahrir. Thousands are reported trying to flee the country, and the borders have been closed. (ABC Australia, May 15) Refugees reportedly overwhelmed border guards, sacked their offices and burned police vehicles in the village of Korasuv on the Kyrgyz frontier. (The Age, Australia; BBC, May 15)

The government claims it is back in control in Andijan, but huge crowds returned to the streets Saturday, shouting “killers, murderers” and demanding that the president step down. (BBC, May 15)

Meanwhile in the capital, Tashkent, police shot and killed an apparent would-be suicide bomber outside the Israeli Embassy. Although he was dressed in military camo and refused to stop when ordered to do so, he was later reported to have been carrying only wooden “mock-ups” of explosives. In July 2004, three suicide bombings in Tashkent targeted the embassies of Israel and the U.S., and the general prosecutor’s office. Three people, all locals, lost their lives in the attacks and eight were injured. The “Islamic Jihad Group in Uzbekistan” claimed responsibility for the attacks. (Haaretz, Pravda, May 13)