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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Deaths Said to Top 700 as Uzbek Unrest Spreads

APZaynabitdinov showing bullet casings outside his Andijan apartment Monday.
ANDIJAN, Uzbekistan -- Sporadic shooting continued Monday in this eastern Uzbek city where an uprising sparked a crackdown by security forces that left up to 500 people dead, and a human rights group reported that clashes in another town killed an additional 200.

The spreading unrest in a region bordering Kyrgyzstan -- the worst since Uzbekistan gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 -- also left 11 people dead in clashes Sunday in a third town and sparked a rampage by residents in a fourth town Saturday, witnesses said.

The government of President Islam Karimov has denied opening fire on demonstrators as witnesses have claimed, but the government has sought to restrict access for reporters in the affected areas.

A respected local doctor in Andijan told The Associated Press on Sunday that about 500 bodies had been laid out at a school for collection by relatives. There was no independent confirmation of the claim by the doctor, who spoke on condition of anonymity out of fears for her safety, but other witnesses have said hundreds were killed when troops put down the uprising on Friday.

If the reports of more than 700 deaths since Friday hold true and if Uzbek forces were behind the killing -- as most reports indicate -- the crackdown would be among the most violent in Asia since the massacre of protesters in China's Tiananmen Square in 1989.

Saidzhahon Zaynabitdinov, head of the local Appeal human rights group, said Monday that government troops had killed about 200 demonstrators on Saturday in Pakhtabad, about 30 kilometers northeast of Andijan.

There was no independent confirmation of his claim.

That fighting would have come a day after the violence in Andijan, when government troops put down an uprising by alleged Islamic militants and citizens protesting dire economic conditions.

Andijan remained extremely tense on Monday after gunfire continued throughout the night. Residents said government troops were fighting militants in Bogishonol, an outlying district of the city, but the claim could not officially be confirmed.

Alexei Volosevich, an Andijan correspondent for the Fergana.ru web site, said witnesses told him that militants fired at police from the attics of apartment buildings near the city prison and that police eventually killed the assailants. There was no word about police casualties.

Troops and armored personnel carriers formed a tight circle around the city center, where the local administration building -- at the center of Friday's violence -- was on fire late Sunday. Piles of sandbags used as defenses in the fighting dotted the streets.

Men were digging what appeared to be a large common grave at a local cemetery under the watch of many Uzbek security service agents.

"It is sheer genocide against the people," Zaynabitdinov said. "The people now are more afraid of government troops than of any so-called militants."

Zaynabitdinov reiterated the protesters' contention that they were not aiming to overthrow the government but simply wanted to air their grievances. "The demonstrators did not have any claims to power. It was just an outpouring of people's feelings. People were driven out into the streets," he said.

In the capital, Tashkent, several rights activists and opposition politicians laid flowers at a monument to commemorate the victims of violence in Andijan. They were surrounded by scores of uniformed police and plainclothes security agents, who did not, however, prevent them from talking to reporters.

Participants accused Karimov of giving orders to shoot at the crowd in Andijan -- a charge denied by the president, who blamed the violence on alleged Islamic extremists.

"It's clear that they wouldn't have opened fire without an order from the top," said Inera Safargaliyeva, the head of the Committee for Freedom of Speech and Expression. "About 500 people were killed."

Prosecutor General's Office spokeswoman Svetlana Artikova said Monday that her office had opened a criminal investigation on charges of staging riots in Andijan. She refused to comment on the number of people arrested. No charges have been filed yet.

A United Nations official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said government troops were concentrating Monday near the city of Namangan, the site of the regional airport and a major transport hub in the Fergana Valley. Namangan is also the birthplace of Juma Namangani, the leader of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, a Taliban-allied group that was fighting for establishment of an Islamic state in the valley.

In a separate clash in the border town of Teshiktosh on Sunday, eight government soldiers and three civilians were killed and hundreds of Uzbeks fled into neighboring Kyrgyzstan, witnesses said.

In another border community, Korasuv, an estimated 5,000 people went on a rampage Saturday and forced authorities to restore a bridge across a river that marks the border with Kyrgyzstan. Local residents saw the government's closing of the bridge more than two years ago as a move to deny them access to the better economy and more open politics of Kyrgyzstan.

"It was a popular uprising. There were no terrorists here, just ordinary people," said Furkat Yuldashev, 32, as he stood with other townspeople near the bridge.

"It's necessary to get this ruler out," said Umarjon-Aka, 75, dressed in a traditional black robe and dark blue hat.