Uzbekistan: digging graves as soldiers move through the streets

Cemetery workers hastily buried 37 bodies in a mass grave in the eastern city of Andijan on Tuesday as residents mourned what witnesses said were hundreds killed last week by security forces in the worst unrest in Uzbekistan since it won independence in 1991.

The 37 young men were wrapped in traditional white shrouds before being placed in a common pit at a cemetery in the southern part of the city. Cemetery members refused to identify the bodies and the grave _ dug at a distance other graves _ was marked only by a small sign.

Abdulgapur Dadaboyev, an activist with the Ezgulik (Kindness) rights group, said in a telephone interview Tuesday that a worker from his group had seen at least 200 bodies still awaiting burial Monday at an Andijan morgue and that more were at a local clinic and a hospital. Most of the victims appeared to have been shot in the back, he said. Three was no way to corroborate the account.

It is unknown how many died in Friday's violence in this former Soviet republic.

A respected local doctor in Andijan earlier told The Associated Press that about 500 bodies were laid out at a school over the weekend for collection by relatives. There was no independent confirmation of the claim by the doctor, who spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear for her safety; other witnesses also have said hundreds were killed when troops put down the uprising Friday.

Separate reports said violence in a nearby town killed hundreds more, further threatening the stability of the government of President Islam Karimov.

The violence puts the United States in a difficult position because it relies on Karimov's authoritarian government for an air base in the country and anti-terrorism support.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Monday that the United States was "still trying to understand" what happened in Andijan, Uzbekistan's fourth-largest city, where government troops put down a prison uprising by alleged Islamic militants and a demonstration by citizens about dire economic conditions.

"They really need more political reform and we've been saying that to the Uzbeks for some time," Rice said. "I don't mean that they should tolerate terrorists or terrorist groups. ... But it is a system that is politically too closed."

"The main preoccupations are now to encourage everybody to forgo any further violence, to help with the refugees that went into Kyrgyzstan out of Uzbekistan, and to try to deal with the consequences right now of this set of issues," she said.

The government has blamed Islamic extremists for the violence. The crackdown came after protesters stormed a prison, freed inmates and then seized local government offices. But many of the demonstrators were citizens complaining about poverty and unemployment.

Karimov's government has denied firing on demonstrators. However, an AP reporter and other journalists witnessed troops opening fire on the crowd at Andijan's central square.

Channel One state television aired a report alleging militants in Andijan had fired at civilians. Khushnudbek Matmusayev, a medical doctor, told Channel One that the militants had fired at an ambulance, killing two medics and a driver.

Saidjahon Zaynabitdinov, head of the local Appeal human rights advocacy group, said Monday that government troops killed about 200 demonstrators on Saturday in Pakhtabad, about 30 kilometers (20 miles) northeast of Andijan. There was no independent confirmation of his claim.

In Andijan, several bouquets of flowers dotted the middle of one of the city's main streets. Buildings along the road were pockmarked by scattered bullet holes.

Security remained tight in Andijan on Tuesday, with armored vehicles guarding approaches to official buildings and troops in full combat gear watching out from behind concrete barricades. Men were digging fresh graves at neighborhood cemeteries under the watch of Uzbek security service agents.

BURT HERMAN, Associated Press Writer

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