A rebel leader deepened the crisis in eastern Uzbekistan by announcing an Islamic uprising in his border town, as diplomats and U.N. officials toured the eastern city of Andijan under government escort Wednesday to investigate widely differing accounts of recent bloodshed.
The government of President Islam Karimov quickly shrugged off Bakhtiyor Rakhimov's claims as "nonsense," but the rebel leader asserted that his forces controlled Korasuv, a town of 20,000 on the Kyrgyz border, and were ready to fight any government troops that came to crush his rebellion.
It remained unclear how many people Rakhimov commanded.
"We will be building an Islamic state here in accordance with the Quran," Rakhimov said in an interview with The Associated Press. "People are tired of slavery."
Uzbek Interior Minister Zakir Almatov belittled the militant leader's claims.
"It's all sheer nonsense, everything is normal there," he said when asked whether the government would move against the insurgents in Korasuv. "If anything had happened there, I already would have been there."
The uprising in Korasuv began with attacks on police and government posts on Saturday, a day after the region exploded in unrest with thousands of protesters taking to the streets in Uzbekistan's fourth-largest city, Andijan, in a rage over the trial of 23 Muslims and complaints of economic hardship.
Troops loyal to Karimov's government put down the protest Friday in Andijan and reportedly did the same in another town, Pakhtabad, over the weekend.
Accounts have varied greatly on the death toll so far, with the government citing 169 dead in Andijan, and opposition activists citing more than 700 dead - more than 500 in Andijan and about 200 in Pakhtabad - most of them civilians.
Karimov's government has blamed all of the unrest on militants and has denied that troops fired on any civilians, though an AP reporter saw troops opening fire on protesters in Andijan on Friday.
U.N. officials on Wednesday toured Andijan's regional emergency hospital, which was treating 106 people wounded in the riots. Valikhan Khakimov, the head of the regional health department, said that 72 of them were civilians and 34 were law enforcement officials.
He said six other patients had been transferred to a nearby military hospital, but declined to give the overall figure of people wounded in Andijan violence.
Outside the hospital, about 30 patients' relatives crowded the gates, asking for information and trying to hand over letters and food. They weren't allowed inside the hospital, which was swarming with troops toting Kalashnikov assault rifles and plainclothes security agents.
"They don't let us in, they don't explain anything, they just say no," said Khamid Fazliddinov, 45, who hasn't seen his wounded son for five days.
In response to a request by Britain and others, Uzbek authorities allowed a visit to Andijan by a group of 35 diplomats and 30 journalists, who arrived Wednesday on a government-organized flight.
"It's really important to see what the government has to tell us," U.S. Ambassador Jon Purnell said.
The group, traveling under police escort, toured a prison and an administrative building that were seized by militants during Friday's violence.
"The goal of the trip is to disavow media allegations that didn't correspond to reality," said Uzbek Deputy Foreign Minister Ilkhom Nematov.
Authorities did not allow the visitors to roam freely, citing security concerns, and showed them local residents who backed the official version of events. One of them, Tursunbai Rustamov, said he was proud of his son, a police officer, who was killed by militants.
Khakimov, the local health official, said the casualties included three medical workers killed when their ambulance was fired upon during the violence. He said the driver was wounded, but didn't specify where the bullets came from.
State television previously reported that militants had fired on the ambulance.
Nigara Khidoyatova, head of the unregistered opposition Free Peasants Party, has said that her party reached its figure of 745 killed in Andijan and Pakhtabad by speaking to relatives of the missing.
Karimov dismissed Khidoyatova's claim, saying she "needs psychiatric treatment," but she stuck to her claim Wednesday, promising to reveal the list soon.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Tuesday appealed to Uzbekistan to open up its political system and said that innocent people had lost their lives and "that is always a cause for concern."
BURT HERMAN, Associated Press Writer