Government dismisses call for international probe into Uzbekistan violence

Uzbek authorities shrugged off the U.N. chief's call for an international probe into a government crackdown on protesters that witnesses say killed hundreds, as the country's Muslim faithful prayed Friday for an end to bloodshed.

President Islam Karimov has blamed Islamic militants for the unrest and denies that his troops fired on unarmed civilians, dismissing claims of rights activists who put the death toll at over 700. Karimov told U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan that he opposed an international investigation into the worst bloodshed since the country's independence in 1991.

"He said he had the situation under control and was taking every measure to bring those responsible to account, and didn't need an international team to establish the facts," Annan said in New York on Thursday night.

On Friday, a U.N. human rights expert said he asked Uzbekistan to allow him to visit the country to assess the situation there, but received no immediate reply.

Philip Alston, U.N. special investigator on illegal and arbitrary executions, said in a statement that he was "gravely concerned about reports that hundreds of people, including women and children, were killed on May 13 when government troops fired indiscriminately to disperse a demonstration in Andijan."

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 the U.S. military has scaled back its operations from the Central Asian state since violence broke out late last week.

U.S. forces operate out of an air base in the country to support operations in Afghanistan. The base in Khanabad is located in southern Uzbekistan, several hundred kilometers (miles) from the unrest in the east.

"We have decided to make sure that we're cautious about how we're operating," he said, according to a Pentagon transcript of his comments Wednesday to a small group of reporters. He said the change was not meant to be a message to Uzbekistan's government.

Asked about who was driving the violence, he said: "I think this is a level of violence that's coming probably from a lot of different groups that aren't altogether clear to me, but I would not necessarily characterize them in one way or the other."

The government troops opened fire on demonstrators in Andijan after protesters stormed a prison, freed inmates and then seized local government offices, taking officials hostage.

The government says 169 people died in Andijan, but opposition figures and rights activists say more than 700 were killed - over 500 in Andijan and about 200 in nearby Pakhtabad - most of them civilians.

The riots in Andijan triggered an uprising in a nearby town of Korasuv on the border with Kyrgyzstan, where followers of Bakhtiyor Rakhimov, a farmer turned rebel leader, burned government buildings and drove away authorities Saturday. The government reclaimed control before sunrise Thursday, quickly arresting Rakhimov, who had vowed to build an Islamic state.

At Rakhimov's two-story brick home on the edge of town, about 30 special forces troops broke down the gate, his sister, Yulduz Rakhimova, said, displaying the wooden shards. The soldiers went to Rakhimov's room, ordered him to get dressed, then they beat him, she said.

The Uzbek Foreign Ministry condemned neighboring Kyrgyzstan for letting more than 500 Uzbeks flee the violence cross the border, and said weak controls had led to "serious riots" and actions staged by religious groups.

"The local Kyrgyz authorities didn't control the situation," the ministry said in a note handed to the Kyrgyz ambassador. "The situation may spin out of control if they continue to fail to take necessary steps."

In Andijan, dozens of Muslims headed to Devonaboi Jome mosque in the old town for Friday prayers.

"We will pray for peace so that there will be no more bloodshed," said Mirzorakhim Khodji, the mosque's deputy imam. Uzbekistan's mosques are tightly controlled by the government, which watches closely for any sign of dissent.

Addressing over 1,000 believers who gathered inside and near the mosque, Imam Muhammad Sadyk said the violence in Andijan was the work of "bands of bandits."

"Please don't follow these people," he said. "If you see crowds of people, stay away. Even if you're interested, don't do it."

But some believers who attended Friday prayers in the Shaikh Zainitdin mosque in the capital, Tashkent, said the unrest was triggered by poverty and repression. "People rose up because of the lack of democracy here," said Razik, 50, who only gave his first name, fearing reprisals.

The May 13 protest was triggered by a trial of 23 local Islamic businessmen. Many of the demonstrators were citizens complaining about poverty and unemployment.

BURT HERMAN, Associated Press Writer

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