Tajik leader warns spread of violence in Central Asia would be worse than in Balkans

Tajik President Emomali Rakhmonov warned on Wednesday that a spread of violence in Central Asia would be worse than the Balkans wars in the 1990s.

He told reporters after meeting Kyrgyzstan's Acting President Kurmanbek Bakiyev that Tajikistan was closely following the situation in neighboring Uzbekistan where unrest has exploded in the east of the country.

"Instability in Uzbekistan is not in the interests of Tajikistan, or Kyrgyzstan, or Turkmenistan. I pray to God nothing happens in our densely populated region, it would be worse than the Balkans," said Rakhmonov.

The Kyrgyz leader, who helped to spearhead protests that ousted the longtime ruler in Kyrgyzstan in March, said he believed the violence was linked to Islamic militants.

"Time will tell, but the hand of religious extremism is visible here," he said.

An Islamic rebel leader deepened the crisis in eastern Uzbekistan on Wednesday by saying his forces controlled Korasuv, a town of 20,000 on the Kyrgyz border.

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 President Islam Karimov's government put down the protest Friday in Andijan and reportedly did the same in another town, Pakhtabad, over the weekend.

Accounts of the death toll have varied greatly. The government cites 169 dead in Andijan, but opposition activists say more than 700 were killed - most of them civilians.

Observers expect Karimov, who has long run the country with an iron hand, to crack down even further.

But they also warn of the spread of Islamic militancy in Central Asia, a strategic region rich in oil that hosts U.S military bases used in the war against terrorism.

Human Rights Watch meanwhile urged the Kyrgyz authorities not to return the more than 500 Uzbek refugees who fled across the border into Kyrgyzstan last week. "Voluntary return should not be organized until it is deemed safe," it said in a letter to the Kyrgyz leader.

The New-York based human rights organization also called on Kyrgyzstan to keep the borders open to allow other refugees from the violence in Uzbekistan to flee to safety.

PARVINA KHAMIDOVA, Associated Press Writer

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