Uzbekistan back from the brink?

With the world still trying to get a grasp of the magnitude of the violence that has shaken Uzbekistan over the past week, the Uzbek government claims to have retaken (with no bloodshed) the small eastern border town of Korasuv, where local authorities were ousted in a popular uprising. The regime is claiming the uprising there was led by Islamic militants, and has arrested Bakhtiyor Rakhimov, said to be their leader, and several others. The government has now also officially raised its estimate of the dead in the suppression of protests in nearby Andijan to 169–still a far cry from the estimates of opposition activists, who claim between 500 and 700. The government is also claiming the dead are overwhelmingly members of the security forces killed by “terrorists”; opposition leaders say they are overwhelmingly protesters killed by security forces. It does appear that armories were raided by protesters, and that firing came from both sides. Over 2,000 prisoners were said to be freed when protesters stormed the prison. (BBC, May 19)

Russia’s MosNews quoted from an AP interview with Rakhimov before his arrest, in which he called for local Islamic rule. “All decisions will be taken by people at a mosque. There will be rule of Shariah law. Thieves and other criminals will be tried by the people themselves.” He denied there was any organization behind the rebellion. “We are just people. We just follow the Quran,” he said.

Also yesterday, Uzbek officials took journalists and diplomats on a three-hour guided tour of Andijan to demonstrate that the city has returned to calm, and try to dispel claims of 500 dead. But participants complained that they were not allowed to move independently or interview local residents. (AP, May 19)

The repression in Uzbekistan has been accompanied by a clampdown on information access throughout the country. The following is from Transitions Online, a publication linked to George Soros’ Open Society Institute that monitors the post-Soviet republics:

Gaining news from within Uzbekistan is extremely difficult. As news emerged early on 13 May of killings in Andijan, sources in Uzbekistan reported that Internet connections throughout the capital had immediately slowed down to almost unworkable speed. Access to independent online media, always complicated by the authorities’ efforts to block sites and its use of dummy “mirror” sites, became almost impossible from within Uzbekistan. Russian television was shut down, to be replaced by music. The BBC and other international cable television services, normally available to a small proportion of the population, were replaced by Uzbek and foreign entertainment channels. Many roads in Tashkent were immediately closed off, with particularly tight security around the Israeli embassy, where a suicide bomber was recently shot before he could blow himself up.

See our last blog post on the crisis in Uzbekistan.