MOSCOW, May 14 -- Scores of civilians were killed when Uzbek troops opened fire on protesters, some of them armed, in the eastern city of Andijon on Friday, human rights groups and witnesses said. The president of the Central Asian republic said Saturday that the use of force was necessary to quell unrest that he called the work of "criminals" and "Islamic radicals."
At a news conference in Tashkent, the capital, President Islam Karimov said 10 soldiers were killed in clashes after troops entered a central square and government buildings where thousands of protesters had gathered. Karimov said "many more" protesters than troops were killed but did not provide specific numbers.
Human rights groups said as many as 200 people may have been killed, and local activists and witnesses said troops had removed dozens of bodies from the city center.
The protests spread Saturday to the city of Ilyichevsk, 20 miles southeast of Andijon and on the border with Kyrgyzstan. Thousands of Uzbeks have streamed to the area, demanding access to the neighboring country. About 500 broke through a closed border.
"They torched a car belonging to a policeman and pushed a border guard's car into the canal and demanded to be allowed to pass through unhindered" into Kyrgyzstan, a Kyrgyz police official, Ravshan Abdukarimov, told the Reuters news service.
Uzbek state television is providing almost no information about the events in Andijon or elsewhere in the country.
But, according to news reports and Andijon residents reached by telephone, hundreds of people continued to protest there Saturday, with some carrying corpses into the central square in the early morning to register their anger at the shooting. As evening fell, however, the streets began to clear out and the city was largely calm, according to news reports.
The violence was triggered by the prosecution of 23 prominent businessmen in Andijon on charges of religious extremism, part of a wider government crackdown on all forms of Islam not sanctioned by the state in this largely Muslim country. The businessmen are reported to be followers of Akram Yuldashev, an Islamic dissident who was sentenced to 17 years in prison in 1999 on charges that he called for the overthrow of the government.
The trial of the businessmen ended this week with a call for lengthy prison sentences, angering many people in the city where the men were major employers. There were also reports that relatives of the men, who had been protesting peacefully outside the courthouse for two months, were detained after the trial ended.
Mukhammed Salikh, an exiled opposition figure, said in an interview with Georgian television from Norway that "we need to oust Islam Karimov's regime with as few losses as possible."
"This is not a rebellion of radicals," he said. "This is a rebellion of ordinary people who got tired of the Karimov regime."
Karimov said attempts to negotiate a peaceful solution in Andijon proved impossible, and he described the protesters' demands, including greater religious freedom, as excessive.
"To link these tragic events with the development of democracy is absurd," Karimov said at the news conference. "The attempts to artificially impose democracy in countries that are far from its standards may result in a third force -- radical Muslim groups -- benefiting from the situation."
Early Friday, perhaps as many as 60 supporters of the businessmen raided a military base and seized weapons, according to news reports from the city. They then stormed the prison where the businessmen were being held, freeing them and up to 2,000 other prisoners.
Armed groups then began to roam the city and engaged in gun battles with local security forces. Residents poured into the central square, demanding improved economic conditions and an end to government repression. Protesters seized a government building, holding several police and security officers hostage.
Around 5.30 p.m. Friday, with helicopters buzzing overhead, government troops raced into the square, firing from armored personnel carriers. Bodies littered the center of city after the assault, according to witnesses.
Uzbekistan is a U.S. ally in the war on terrorism, and the U.S. military uses an air base in the country to support operations in neighboring Afghanistan. White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Friday that a "more representative and democratic government should come through peaceful means, not through violence."
Russian government officials are backing Karimov, and the Kremlin Web site said President Vladimir Putin was "seriously concerned about the danger of destabilization."
By Peter Finn Washington Post Foreign Service Sunday, May 15, 2005; A19
© 2005 The Washington Post Company