Authorities, opposition leaders offer widely divergent death tolls in Uzbek violence

A group of foreign diplomats and journalists arrived Wednesday in the eastern Uzbek city of Andijan to investigate widely diverging death tolls and accounts of the violence in this U.S.-allied Central Asian country.

The top prosecutor said 169 were killed, mostly terrorists and government troops, but opposition activists maintain that more than 700 died - most of them civilians.

Prosecutor-General Rashid Kadyrov and President Islam Karimov held a news conference in the capital, Tashkent, on Tuesday, and they blamed alleged Islamic militants for last week's unrest and denied that government forces had shot and killed any civilians.

"Only terrorists were liquidated by government forces," the prosecutor said Tuesday.

Kadyrov said 32 troops and 137 others, most of them "terrorists," including foreign fighters, were killed in the eastern town of Andijan. He said that victims included hostages and civilians killed by militants, but didn't give any figures.

However, opposition leaders blamed government troops for most of the killings. They allege that over 500 people, many of them innocent civilians, were killed in Andijan and more than 200 in the nearby town of Pakhtabad.

Britain and others have urged the Uzbek authorities to open Andijan for international assessment, and the government allowed a group of foreign diplomats and journalists to visit the city. The group arrived in Andijan on Wednesday on a government-organized flight.

The unrest was the worst since the former Soviet republic won independence in 1991.

Nigara Khidoyatova, head of the unregistered opposition Free Peasants Party, said her party reached its figure of 745 killed in the two towns by speaking to relatives of the missing. "The count hasn't yet finished, and the death toll will rise," she told The Associated Press.

Other witnesses said several hundred people were killed in Andijan.

The Uzbek president dismissed Khidoyatova's claim of over 700 dead as one made by a "person who needs psychiatric treatment."

"Let's count the number of graves tomorrow," Karimov said, apparently referring to the government-organized trip to Andijan.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice again appealed to Uzbekistan's government to open its political system and to reform.

"Nobody is asking any government to deal with terrorists," she said of a bloody clash between government forces and protesters.

At a State Department news conference Tuesday, she stressed U.S. concern with the country's human rights record and said she hoped the government "would be very, very open in understanding what has happened here."

Rice said innocent people had lost their lives and "that is always a cause for concern."

The events began Friday when protesters stormed a prison in Andijan, freed alleged Islamic militants and other inmates, andseizedlocal government offices. Thousands of demonstrators filled the city's central square and listened to speeches, mostly complaining about poverty and unemployment.

That's when the government crackdown began.

An AP reporter and photographer saw trucks with troops drive by the square and open fire into the crowd after some protesters threw stones at them. Some protesters were armed.

"No one is talking about what kind of peaceful demonstration it was that was well-armed, attacked police and regular troops, seized their weapons, attacked a prison and freed 600 inmates," Karimov said Tuesday.

But at a tent camp across the Kyrgyzstan border, Uzbek refugees said their demonstration in the central square was peaceful and that the troops kept firing.

"They fired nonstop," said Tojiba Mukhtarova, 38, sitting in a tent with other women, adding that she was torn by thoughts of the five children she left in Andijan. "We waved in the air with white scarves, but they continued to shoot at us."

A respected doctor in Andijan, speaking on condition of anonymity out of fear for her safety, told the AP she saw about 500 bodies laid out at a school during the weekend for collection by relatives.

But a physical education teacher at the school Tuesday, who didn't give his name, said there had been only "four or five" bodies there.

Workers at a college across the street, where the doctor said she had seen 100 more bodies, refused to let journalists inside. A woman living next door, who identified herself only as Galina out of fear for her security, said she saw three trucks take away 30 to 40 dead.

She said that as the injured ran into courtyards screaming for help, residents were afraid to leave their homes. She said doctors arrived later to help.

Streets in Andijan remained stained with blood and security was tight. Armored vehicles guarded approaches to official buildings and troops in combat gear watched from behind concrete barricades.

Witnesses said an armored personnel carrier fired at a vehicle trying to leave the city early Tuesday, killing several passengers. The victims allegedly were businessmen connected to Akramia, a group of Muslim businessmen at the center of the unrest.

In Pakhtabad, virtually all the victims were women and children apparently trying to flee violence by crossing into Kyrgyzstan, Khidoyatova said.

However, other activists and journalists who traveled to the Pakhtabad area haven't confirmed reports of large-scale violence there, and it was possible that some of those who fled to Kyrgyzstan had been reported dead by their relatives.

BURT HERMAN, Associated Press Writer; Associated Press writers Kadyr Toktogulov in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, and Bagila Bukharbayeva in Kara Darya, Kyrgyzstan, also contributed to this report.

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