Uzbek government troops reclaim control of eastern town, arrest rebel leaders, residents say

Government troops easily retook an eastern Uzbek town from a rebel group who had earlier vowed to fight to build an Islamic state in the former Soviet republic, and arrested their leaders, residents said Thursday.

Analysts had feared the rebel's apparent seizure of Korasuv could signal a new stage in unrest that erupted one week ago in several places in the country's east, sparking a crackdown by security forces that opposition activists said killed hundreds.

But residents said Thursday about 200 government forces had moved in overnight, occupying the town that lies on the border with Kyrgyzstan and is home to about 20,000 people.

Some residents, speaking on condition their names not be used for fear of reprisals, said they heard no shots; others reported sporadic firing.

After daylight Thursday, about 20 troops with Kalashnikov assault rifles slung across their shoulders were deployed at the town's central square, and smaller groups of soldiers stood guard at government buildings.

Military helicopters occasionally flew overhead, but the town looked calm, with people walking around or riding bicycles. The border with Kyrgyzstan remained open, indicating government forces felt firmly in control.

Relatives of Bakhtiyor Rakhimov, a farmer turned rebel leader who on Wednesday claimed to have 5,000 supporters who would fight government forces with knives if necessary, said his house was raided before dawn by 30 special forces troops, who hauled him and his 14-year-old son away.

"They beat him with rifle butts on the head and kicked him," said Rakhimov's wife, Gulchakhra.

Several of Rakhimov's aides were also arrested, and at least one neighbor was taken away in the sweep, said the man's wife, Orokhat Madusmanova.

On Wednesday Rakhimov declared to The Associated Press that Korasuv was "in the hands of the people" and that, "We will be building an Islamic state here in accordance with the Quran."

The government has denied its troops opened fire on innocent civilians during anti-government protests in the city of Andijan last Friday, though it says 169 people were killed in clashes between authorities and militants.

But an opposition party and a human rights activist say that at least 500 - mostly civilians - were killed in Andijan and about 200 in another eastern city, Pakhtabad. Other opposition groups estimate the total death toll at 200 to 300.

The protests triggered similar action in other cities, including rioting on Saturday in Korasuv, during which most government officials fled, leaving Rakhimov to claim control, residents said.

In Andijan, witnesses described troops shooting indiscriminately into protesters last Friday. Diplomats and international agencies have asked for better access to the city to try to determine what happened, amid growing skepticism about the government's claim that it was responding to militant violence.

"Reports being compiled paint a very disturbing picture of the events and the government of Uzbekistan's reaction to them," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said overnight in Washington. "It's becoming apparent that very large numbers of civilians were killed by the indiscriminate use of force by Uzbek forces."

White House press secretary Scott McClellan also condemned "the indiscriminate use of force against unarmed civilians" and said the U.S. government wanted "more open and responsive government" in Uzbekistan.

The U.S. counts Uzbekistan's authoritarian President Islam Karimov as an ally in its war against terrorism, and relies on the government for permission to use an air base that supports U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

Facing such international criticism, Karimov's government apparently opted for a less heavy-handed approach in Korasuv as it sought to prevent the unrest from spreading across the densely-populated Fergana Valley, brimming with Islamist sympathies.

The uprising in Andijan focused largely on social and economic demands, but observers said the unrest could provide Islamic militants with an opening to promote their own goals.

Uzbek officials took foreign diplomats and journalists on a lightning-quick tour of Andijan on Wednesday, showing them a prison and the local administration building and arranging meetings with local officials.

The delegation was kept blocks away from the people of Andijan, leaving little chance for an objective assessment of Friday's violence. Some diplomats complained the trip was too short and limited to draw conclusions about the violence. The top U.N. human rights official called for an independent investigation.

Officials accused militants of looting, executing local officials and using civilians as a shields as they tried to flee.

BAGILA BUKHARBAYEVA, Associated Press Writer

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