INTERNATIONAL

Uneasy calm prevails in Uzbek province

FLEEING VIOLENCE: Residents leave Uzbekistan near the village of Korasuv, 50 km east of Andijan, on the border with Kyrgyzstan on Saturday as seen in this television image. — PHOTO: AP

FLEEING VIOLENCE: Residents leave Uzbekistan near the village of Korasuv, 50 km east of Andijan, on the border with Kyrgyzstan on Saturday as seen in this television image. — PHOTO: AP  

Death toll mounts as spectre of revolution looms large in the Central Asian state

Vladimir Radyuhin

MOSCOW: Even as tense calm descended on Uzbekistan's violence-hit province of Andijan in Ferghana Valley, the spectre of revolution was still looming large in the Central Asian state.

Reports from Andijan, the centre of riots last week, suggested that the city was returning to peaceful life on Sunday, with shops and markets opening and people burying those killed when troops moved in to suppress an armed revolt provoked by the trial of 23 local businessmen on charges of belonging to an Islamist group.

500 killed

The Ferghana.ru website reported that 500 may have been killed in Andijan, the claim is hard to verify as the city has been sealed off by the army and police.

Uzbekistan's President Islam Karimov has blamed the violence on Islamic militants linked to the banned Hizb ut-Tahrir movement. This view is shared in Russia, whose President Vladimir Putin discussed the crisis on telephone with Mr. Karimov on Saturday. Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Sunday the unrest in Andijan had been provoked by Taliban-type extremist groups, while Russian security and diplomatic sources said the militants had infiltrated from Afghanistan.

Whoever acted as a trigger, the events in Uzbekistan appear to have been influenced and indeed closely mirrored the beginning of the "tulip revolution" in neighbouring Kyrgyzstan two months ago.

In fact Andijan is only a few dozen km from the Kyrgyz city of Osh where the "tulip revolution" began with the storming of a local administration building - just as in Andijan last Thursday. Kyrgyz President Askar Akayev refused to use force and lost his job after rebels from Osh marched on the capital Bishkek and stormed the presidential palace.

President Karimov, who has ruled Uzbekistan with an iron hand, did not hesitate to have the army put down the rebellion. It remains to be seen if the violent suppression of the revolt pacifies the country or provokes further unrest.

One fact is clear: "velvet revolutions" stage-managed by the United States in Georgia and Ukraine, and then carried over to Kyrgyzstan, are threatening to explode in volatile Central Asia.

At the time of the Kyrgyz coup, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice confidently predicted that it was just a beginning, saying: "We know where we want to go."

The events in Andijan showed they do not know. The U.S., which has a military base in Uzbekistan, has nothing to gain and all to lose from destabilisation in Central Asia's most populous state, which moreover has a common border with Afghanistan.

Explosive situation

The situation in the badly overpopulated and impoverished Ferghana Valley, home to a third of Uzbekistan's 26-million people live, is extremely explosive.

And any explosion in Uzbekistan, where Mr. Karimov has rooted out all political opposition to his regime, will inevitably be led by Islamists, who are the only organised force, even if driven underground.

In Andijan last week protesters demanded the release of Akram Yuldashev, who is serving a 17-year prison term for subversive activities as a leader of the radical Hizb ut-Tahrir movement.

Since the first extremist attacks in Namangan in December 1997, Uzbekistan has been the target of repeated Islamist raids, the most recent in March 2004, when 47 persons died in a spate of bomb and suicide attacks in Tashkent and other regions.

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