Human Rights Watch calls Uzbek government crackdown a massacre

The U.S.-based Human Rights Watch group on Tuesday called last month's Uzbek government crackdown on protesters a massacre, and appealed to the U.S. and the European Union to suspend cooperation with the Central Asian country until it permits an independent international investigation.

The rights group interviewed 50 victims and witnesses who testified that government troops opened fire repeatedly on crowds of protesters. It did not attempt to estimate the number of those killed - witness estimates run into the high hundreds - but the accounts suggested a vast scale killed not only at the square at the center of the protests, but in surrounding streets as the protesters tried to flee through government ambushes.

"The scale of this killing was so extensive, and its nature was so indiscriminate and disproportionate, that it can best be described as a massacre," the group said in its report on the May 13 unrest in the eastern Uzbek city of Andijan, which it presented Tuesday at a news conference in Moscow.

Human Rights Watch said that if the Uzbek government continues to resist calls for an international investigation, Washington should pull its military base out of Uzbekistan and "bring to an end its post-September 11 strategic partnership" with the country. It said the European Union likewise should suspend its Partnership and Cooperation Agreement if Uzbekistan continues to stonewall calls for a probe.

The day of protest opened with a jailbreak in which 23 businessmen who had been on trial for alleged Islamic extremism were freed, along with hundreds of other prisoners. The government says four police officers and two soldiers were killed in attacks on a police barracks and military barracks, where the initial crowd got hold of several weapons and a military truck during the prison break.

At all three sites, Human Rights Watch said, the attackers appear to have met minimal resistance. A bigger gun fight ensued at the local branch of the National Security Service building, on the way to Babur Square, where the attackers overcame the single guard at the local administration and took over the building.

The crowd grew to thousands early in the day. After law enforcement forces opened fire on the crowds in the morning, the protesters started taking hostages. Witnesses said between 25 to 40 hostages, including policemen, the chief tax inspector, a judge and the city prosecutor were taken.

The protesters demanded negotiations with the government, but it refused, and in late afternoon soldiers sealed off the square and moved in, shooting from armored vehicles and the tops of nearby buildings. Two large groups of protesters tried to flee along the city's main street, Cholpon Prospect, but were cut down in ambushes.

"It was like a bowling game, when the ball strikes the pins and everything falls down," Human Rights Watch quoted one witness, who withheld his name for fear of retribution, as saying.

Another witness, one of the 23 free businessmen who made it to safety in Kyrgyzstan, said most people had been killed on that street, near a cinema, where troops had blocked the road completely.

"We couldn't even raise our heads, the bullets were falling like rain. Whoever raised their head died instantly. I also thought I was going to die right there," the businessman said.

Human Rights Watch said hundreds of people were killed at that site alone. There was a further ambush at the Kyrgyz border, which a column of about 600 people reached after walking for about 12 hours. Eight people were killed there, and up to 12 wounded, the group said.

The report said that the Uzbek government had denied medical aid to the wounded in Andijan - leaving many in the streets overnight - and quoted witnesses as saying soldiers arrived in the morning and shot and killed wounded persons.

It also accused the government of trying to cover up the carnage, by removing all bodies except those of muscular young men who fit the profile of the militants the government would blame for the violence, by arresting some witnesses and intimidating others and trying to seal off Andijan to journalists.

VLADIMIR ISACHENKOV, Associated Press Writer

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