Diplomats Tour Andijan, Rebel Vows to Fight

APGuards opening a gate Wednesday during a visit by diplomats to an Andijan prison that had been seized on Friday.
ANDIJAN, Uzbekistan -- Diplomats and UN officials toured the eastern city of Andijan under government escort Wednesday to investigate widely differing accounts of recent bloodshed, as a rebel leader deepened the crisis in eastern Uzbekistan by announcing an Islamic uprising in his border town.

The government of President Islam Karimov quickly shrugged off Bakhtiyor Rakhimov's claims as "nonsense," but the rebel leader asserted that his forces controlled Korasuv, a town of 20,000 on the Kyrgyz border, and were ready to fight any government troops that came to crush his rebellion. The rebels claimed to control 5,000 activists.

"We will be building an Islamic state here in accordance with the Quran," Rakhimov said in an interview. "People are tired of slavery."

Uzbek Interior Minister Zakir Almatov belittled the militant leader's claims. "It's all sheer nonsense, everything is normal there," he said when asked whether the government would move against the insurgents in Korasuv.

The uprising in Korasuv began with attacks on police and government posts on Saturday, a day after the region exploded in unrest with thousands of protesters taking to the streets in Uzbekistan's fourth-largest city, Andijan, in a rage over the trial of 23 Muslims and complaints of economic hardship.

Troops loyal to the Karimov government put down the protest Friday in Andijan and reportedly did the same in another town, Pakhtabad, over the weekend.

Accounts have varied greatly on the death toll so far. The government cites 169 dead in Andijan, but opposition activists say more than 700 were killed -- more than 500 in Andijan and about 200 in Pakhtabad -- most of them civilians.

Karimov's government has blamed the unrest on militants and has denied that troops fired on any civilians, though an AP reporter saw troops open fire on protesters in Andijan on Friday.

UN officials on Wednesday toured Andijan's regional emergency hospital, which was treating 106 people wounded in the riots. Valikhan Khakimov, the head of the regional health department, said 72 of them were civilians and 34 were law enforcement officials.

He declined to give the overall figure of people wounded in Andijan violence.

Outside the hospital, about 30 patients' relatives crowded the gates, asking for information and trying to hand over letters and food. They were not allowed inside the hospital, which was swarming with troops toting Kalashnikov assault rifles.

In response to a request by Britain and others, Uzbek authorities allowed a visit to Andijan by a group of 35 diplomats and 30 journalists, who arrived on a government-organized flight.

But British Ambassador David Moran expressed reservations.

"I think we need to be realistic about how much can be achieved in a whistle-stop tour of ambassadors in a large delegation format over such a short period," he said. "I think what we need now is a systematic process of openness that will enable the international community to make an authoritative assessment of the scale and the nature of what happened here."

The group, traveling under police escort, toured a prison and an administrative building that were seized by militants during Friday's violence.

"The goal of the trip is to disavow media allegations that didn't correspond to reality," said Uzbek Deputy Foreign Minister Ilkhom Nematov.

Authorities did not allow the visitors to roam freely, citing security concerns, and showed them local residents who backed the official version of events. One of them, Tursunbai Rustamov, said he was proud of his son, a police officer, who was killed by militants.