Protesters in Uzbek town demand rebel leader's release

Sunday, May 22, 2005

KORASUV, Uzbekistan -- Uzbeks in this border town demanded Saturday that authorities release a leader whose Islamic rebellion defied the authoritarian government of President Islam Karimov, a key American ally, as unrest smoldered in the former Soviet Republic.

Several hundred residents of Korasuv, a town of 20,000 on the border with Kyrgyzstan, held placards urging the government to free Bakhtiyor Rakhimov, a farmer-turned-rebel leader, and several of his associates who were rounded up when government troops reclaimed the town on Thursday.

"We will stay here until they free them," said the rebel leader's niece, Dilnoza Rakhimova.

Scores of police in riot gear stood guard but didn't try to disperse the protesters who had gathered for a second consecutive day.

International condemnation of the May 13 crackdown in the city of Andijan, where witnesses said hundreds were killed by government troops, could be staying the authorities' hand.

Rakhimov's followers claimed control of Korasuv last Saturday, inspired by riots about 20 miles away in Andijan, where most of protesters were complaining about economic conditions.

On May 14, Korasuv residents burned government buildings, drove away authorities and quickly rebuilt the bridge linking the town to a thriving bazaar on the Kyrgyz side. The government had dismantled the bridge two years ago, cutting the Korasuv residents from their main source of income.

Rakhimov then announced a plan to build an Islamic state and vowed that his supporters would fight government troops with knives.

The government troops swept into Korasuv before dawn Thursday, arresting Rakhimov, his 14-year-old son and close associates. Dilnoza Rakhimova, 25, said that 15 people had been arrested and that Rakhimov, his son and several others remained in custody.

Demonstrators, including children, held four banners with slogans painted on white sheets as onlookers swarmed around the scene.

Many complained about poor living conditions in the city, saying young people were leaving to Russia or Kazakhstan to find work.

Protesters hailed Rakhimov as a respected people's leader. "He did everything for the people, he's not against the government," said Aziza Ulukhodjjayeva, 47.

"He gave people jobs and a way to make money," she said, referring to the bridge.

Uzbek border guards and police were deployed near the bridge Saturday, but it remained open. While residents rallied and riot police stood by, workers shoring up the restored bridge hammered and welded busily as people made their way across the span, mostly to shop or trade at markets on both sides.

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

The government apparently has adopted a less heavy-handed approach in Korasuv to avoid further international outcry.

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, but Uzbek President Islam Karimov has shrugged off the demands.

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.

The United States, Rice said, is encouraging the Uzbek government "to respond positively to the international community's justified concerns about what happened there."

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

The base, several hundred miles from the Fergana Valley where the unrest broke out, serves as a hub for U.S. special operations in Afghanistan, about 90 miles away, and military officials would only describe the U.S. presence as a small contingent.

"We're a small part of the global war on terror," U.S. Air Force Col. Thomas Moore, in charge of flight operations at the base, said Saturday. He said the unrest hasn't affected the base, which is tightly cordoned by Uzbek troops.

Karimov has blamed Islamic militants for the unrest that began on May 13 in Andijan and denies his troops fired on unarmed civilians. He rejected rights activists' claims that more than 700 were killed and said his government would investigate the riots without any foreign involvement. The government says 169 people died in Andijan.

More than 500 refugees who escaped the Andijan violence fled to Kyrgyzstan, where they have appealed for asylum -- ratcheting up already high tensions between the two Central Asian neighbors.

On Friday, the refugees wrote a collective letter to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, begging for protection and urging international pressure on Karimov to improve Uzbekistan's human rights record.

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