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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Uzbek Troops Regain Eastern Town

APAn Uzbek soldier standing at the checkpoint in Korasuv at the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border, 470 kilometers east of Tashkent.
KORASUV, Uzbekistan -- Government troops easily retook an eastern Uzbek town from a rebel group that had earlier vowed to fight to build an Islamic state in the former Soviet republic, and arrested the rebel leaders, residents said Thursday.

Analysts had feared the rebels' apparent seizure of Korasuv could signal a new stage in unrest that erupted a week ago in the country's east, sparking a crackdown by security forces that opposition activists said had killed hundreds.

But residents said Thursday that about 200 government forces had moved in overnight, occupying the town that lies on the border with Kyrgyzstan and is home to about 20,000 people.

Some residents, speaking on condition their names not be used for fear of reprisals, said they heard no shots; others reported sporadic firing.

After dawn Thursday, about 20 troops with Kalashnikov assault rifles slung across their shoulders were deployed at the town's central square, and smaller groups of soldiers stood guard at government buildings.

Military helicopters occasionally flew overhead, but the town looked calm, with people walking around or riding bicycles. The border with Kyrgyzstan remained open, indicating government forces felt firmly in control.

Relatives of Bakhtiyor Rakhimov, a farmer turned rebel leader who on Wednesday claimed to have 5,000 supporters who would fight government forces with knives if necessary, said his house was raided before dawn by 30 special forces troops, who hauled him and his 14-year-old son away.

"They beat him with rifle butts on the head and kicked him," said Rakhimov's wife, Gulchakhra.

Several of Rakhimov's aides were also arrested, and at least one neighbor was taken away in the sweep, said the man's wife, Orokhat Madusmanova.

On Wednesday, Rakhimov said that Korasuv was "in the hands of the people," and that "we will be building an Islamic state here in accordance with the Quran."

The protests in Andijan helped trigger rioting on Saturday in Korasuv, during which most government officials fled, leaving Rakhimov to claim control, residents said.

In Andijan, witnesses described troops shooting indiscriminately into crowds of protesters last Friday. Diplomats and international agencies have asked for better access to the city to try to determine what happened, amid growing skepticism about the government's claim that it was responding to militant violence.

"Reports being compiled paint a very disturbing picture of the events and the government of Uzbekistan's reaction to them," U.S . State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Wednesday in Washington. "It's becoming apparent that very large numbers of civilians were killed by the indiscriminate use of force by Uzbek forces."

White House press secretary Scott McClellan also condemned "the indiscriminate use of force against unarmed civilians" and said the U.S. government wanted "more open and responsive government" in Uzbekistan.

Facing international criticism, Uzbekistan's authoritarian President Islam Karimov's government apparently opted for a less heavy-handed approach in Korasuv as it sought to prevent the unrest from spreading across the densely populated Fergana Valley, which is brimming with Islamist sympathies.

The uprising in Andijan focused largely on social and economic demands, but observers said the unrest could provide Islamic militants with an opening to promote their own goals.

In the Uzbek capital, Tashkent, about 10 opposition politicians and rights activists picketed the Russian Embassy on Thursday to protest Russian state television reports that backed Karimov's version of the Andijan events and called protesters "terrorists."

"If people continue to be oppressed, they will rise," said Anatoly Volkov, a rights activist. "We don't want it to take 200 years to reach democracy, we need our basic rights now."

The activists held signs, one of which read: "Russia, remember that Uzbek oil is stained with blood."

Police did not interfere with the protesters and did not shut down the road, unlike earlier protests.