Uzbek interior minister accused of the Andijan massacre

Uzbekistan's interior minister,accused of crimes against humanity for his role in a bloody government crackdown,has retired for health reasons, the ministry said Friday. Zokirjon Almatov, who retired Thursday, received a government award for his "contribution to maintaining peace and social stability," a ministry statement said. Government troops under Almatov's command fired on thousands of protesters in the eastern town of Andijan in May. Human rights groups say more than 700 people were gunned down, mostly unarmed civilians, while the government put the death toll at 187 and blamed the violence on Islamic extremists.

Last Monday, several survivors of the crackdown filed a lawsuit against Almatov in Germany where he was believed to be undergoing medical treatment for cancer. They accused Almatov of individual crimes of torture, torture as a crime against humanity and crimes against humanity. Reportedly, this week he left for Uzbekistan. Almatov, 56, headed the Interior Ministry for all the 14 years of Uzbekistan's independence from the Soviet Union, and since 1998 headed the Council of Interior Ministers of the Commonwealth of the Independent States, a loose 12-nation grouping of ex-Soviet republics.

He was replaced by Anvar Salikhbaev, a high-ranking intelligence officer and ethnic Tajik from Samarkand, the birthplace of Uzbek President Islam Karimov. In the past Salikhbaev, 54, headed foreign intelligence and served as Uzbek ambassador to Pakistan. The Uzbek government said the uprising in Andijan began when militants seized a prison and freed 23 businessmen on trial for alleged Islamic extremism. The attackers also seized a local administration building and took hostages, as thousands of demonstrators gathered nearby to press economic and social grievances.

Human Rights Watch, however, said the protesters were surrounded by troops, who opened fire. Those who tried to escape were "mowed down" by soldiers, the group said. Meanwhile, 24 policemen, military officers and soldiers were sentenced to up to three years in prison for negligence that allegedly helped rebels to launch the Andijan revolt, a Supreme Court statement said Thursday, reports the AP. N.U.

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