Uzbek Protesters Seek Release of Rebel Leader

KORASUV, Uzbekistan -- Several hundred residents of Korasuv, an Uzbek town of 20,000 on the border with Kyrgyzstan, demanded over the weekend that Uzbek authorities release a leader whose Islamic rebellion there defied the government.

People on Saturday held posters urging the government to free Bakhtiyor Rakhimov, a farmer turned rebel leader, and several of his associates who were rounded up by government troops, who reclaimed the town on Thursday.

Scores of police in riot gear stood guard but did not try to disperse the protesters. International condemnation of a May 13 crackdown in the city of Andijan, where witnesses said hundreds were killed by government troops, might have be staying the authorities' hand.

Rakhimov's followers claimed control of Korasuv after an uprising May 14, inspired by riots about 30 kilometers away in Andijan, where most of protesters were complaining about economic conditions.

Saturday's crowd -- mostly women, dressed in a rainbow of long dresses and headscarves -- pressed around cars trying to pass on a dusty road leading to the rebuilt bridge and demanded they join the protest. At one point, the protesters broke the window of a car driving by.

The jailed leader's brother Faziljon Rakhimov addressed the crowds, asking protesters to calm down and roll up their posters in an apparent bid to calm tempers and avoid a crackdown similar to the one in Andijan.

NATO, the European Union and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe have joined the United Nations in calling for an international investigation into the alleged killing of hundreds in that city, but Uzbek President Islam Karimov has shrugged off the demands.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, asked by reporters about Uzbekistan, noted that $11 million in U.S. assistance had been withheld from that country last year because it did not meet human rights certification requirements.

In a sign of concern about the situation in Uzbekistan, a key U.S. ally in the war on terrorism, General John Abizaid -- head of U.S. Central Command -- said last week that the U.S. military has scaled back its operations at its Uzbek air base.