Uzbek security forces killed at least dozens of people in the Ferghana Valley city of Andijan on May 13 as President Islam Karimov acted ruthlessly to crush an anti-government protest. Uzbek authorities also took steps to isolate the city from the outside world, making it difficult to determine the extent of the carnage.
In the evening of May 13, security forces, backed by tanks and armored vehicles, launched an operation to retake the city center from protesters who had occupied Andijan's central square much of the day. According to witnesses, soldiers fired indiscriminately on the assembled crowd, estimated in the thousands. Armed militants who had seized the regional governmental offices reportedly returned fire, as the protesters in the central square dispersed. The fighting lasted roughly one hour, and several loud explosions were reportedly heard coming from the regional administration, witnesses reported.
Getting an accurate casualty estimate was complicated by the fact that security forces cordoned off the area from the outside world. Telephone and internet connections with the region were also blocked. One source, the Ferghana.ru web site, put the number of the dead in the hundreds. Authorities in Tashkent also appeared to cut off Uzbek access to foreign independent news sources, especially Russian-language mass media outlets.
The trouble in Andijan began when militants stormed a local prison during the early hours of May 13, setting as many as 4,000 inmates free. A prolonged fire-fight between the militants and security forces ensued, as civilian protesters took to the streets. There were at least two children among the initial casualties, witnesses said. By daybreak, militants, along with civilian protesters, had gained the upper hand, occupying the city's central square, including the regional government offices. According to Karimov's press office, nine people were killed and 34 wounded during the initial confrontation.
Anti-government protesters occupied the central square throughout the day. Some estimates put the crowd as high as 50,000. Many protesters called for Karimov's resignation, complaining that the government's economic program, including a tax policy widely viewed as confiscatory, was impoverishing the population. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
After taking control of the regional administration building, a leader of the militant group telephoned a Ferghana.ru correspondent, issuing an appeal to Russian President Vladimir Putin to intervene in the crisis and prevent further bloodshed. "They [security forces] are shooting unarmed people who are simply demanding their rights," the militant leader was quoted by Ferghana.ru as saying. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters in Moscow that the Andijan crisis as an "internal matter for Uzbekistan."
Since 2001, Uzbekistan has hosted a US air base, which is used to provide support for on-going operations against Islamic radicals in Afghanistan. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Of late, Karimov has distanced himself from the United States, motivated by the apparent belief that Washington is fueling the revolutionary trend that has produced regime change in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan in the past 18 months. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
The trigger for the unrest in Andijan was the arrest of 23 local businessmen on suspicion of membership in a radical Islamic group, called Akromiya. Uzbek authorities allege that the group -- supposedly founded by Akram Yuldashev, who is currently serving a 17-year prison term -- is an off-shoot of Hizb-ut-Tahrir, the pan-national organization that operates underground in Central Asia, advocating the non-violent overthrow of the existing political order in the region and the establishment of an Islamic caliphate. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Some government critics contend that Akromiya does not exist. They add that Karimov's administration is exploiting fears of Islamic radicalism in an attempt to stamp out any potential threat to its authority.
Several residents in Andijan told a EurasiaNet correspondent that the 23 men taken into custody were legitimate entrepreneurs who were active in numerous charitable activities, but who did not take part in radical Islamic activity. The militant action to open up the local prison appeared to be driven by a desire to free the 23 defendants from custody. The prison housed a significant number of Uzbeks who had been convicted on charges relating to Islamic radical activity, in addition to those convicted of violent crimes and other felonies.
State-controlled Uzbek media attributed the unrest in Andijan to Islamic "extremists," "criminals" and "bandits." Karimov critics vigorously disputed that characterization, saying that most of the Andijan protesters were not affiliated with any radical group. "This protest was the result of his [Karimov's] economic policies," a high-level representative of the Sunshine Coalition, an Uzbek opposition alliance, told EurasiaNet. "The people are being driven by a sense of desperation."
The Sunshine Coalition representative suggested that the Karimov administration's use of force would not deter future anti-government protests. "There is a sense among people that there is nothing to lose," the representative said, adding that events in Kyrgyzstan last March, when protesters toppled Askar Akayev's administration, seems to have emboldened Uzbeks to resist. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. "Kyrgyzstan is right next door," the representative said. "The Kyrgyz revolution has prompted a lot of people to wonder why they should tolerate such poor living conditions [in Uzbekistan]."
Sunshine Uzbekistan, which announced its formation on April 9, seeks to unite all democratically oriented political forces in Uzbekistan in opposition to Karimov. In a statement, the coalition movement portrayed itself as "Uzbekistan's best hope for realizing change." Among the participants in the Sunshine Uzbekistan coalition is the Ozod Dekhkonlar (Free Peasants) movement.
A growing number of officials within the Karimov administration are starting to second-guess the president's political strategy and tactics, raising the possibility that the Karimov's administration could collapse from within, the Sunshine Coalition representative claimed. The representative said several top government officials had contacted Sunshine Coalition in recent weeks, expressing a desire to establish a dialogue, seemingly aimed at reaching a new political consensus in the country. "They [Karimov allies] are trying to open up channels of communication with us because they realize the situation is headed in the wrong direction," the Sunshine Coalition representative said.