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Uzbek protesters ran gantlet of death - Chicago Tribune

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  • Zafar Khan
    Uzbek protesters ran gantlet of death By Alex Rodriguez Tribune foreign correspondent Published June 13, 2005
    Message 1 of 1 , Jun 15, 2005
      Uzbek protesters ran gantlet of death

      By Alex Rodriguez
      Tribune foreign correspondent
      Published June 13, 2005


      KARA DARYA, Kyrgyzstan -- By late afternoon May 13,
      talks had stalled between Uzbekistan authorities and
      armed demonstrators inside a government building in
      Andijan. Speaking by phone to the gunmen, a top
      law-enforcement official used an Uzbek proverb to
      foretell the government's next move:

      "Your eyes will soon see what befalls you."

      Shortly afterward, gun-mounted armored personnel
      carriers raced up to Babur Square outside the
      building, where thousands more demonstrators were
      rallying against the trial of 23 local businessmen on
      Islamic extremism charges. Without warning, Uzbek
      soldiers opened fire on the crowd, survivors said.

      Every other street leading from the square already had
      been blocked by military vehicles and soldiers. Uzbek
      authorities left only one way out: Chulpon Prospekt,
      Andijan's main thoroughfare.

      Several thousand Uzbeks, almost all of them unarmed,
      jammed into the broad, tree-lined street. Fifteen
      minutes later, the ambush began. Uzbek soldiers on
      rooftops, in apartment windows and treetops fired down
      on protesters huddled together, many with arms linked.

      "The bullets rained down," said Abdulsalam Karimov,
      50. "There were soldiers everywhere with one aim--to
      kill everybody."

      Survivors tell of carnage

      Survivors of the ambush, interviewed recently at a
      refugee camp in Kara Darya, a few hundred yards from
      the Uzbek border, described the carnage. Row after row
      of protesters toward the front collapsed in heaps.
      Snipers picked off others who had scrambled over to
      the wounded to drag them away. Among the piles of
      bodies were women and children, many with bullet
      wounds to the head.

      On either side of Chulpon Prospekt, blood flowed
      freely through the gutters, pushed along by the
      evening's hard, steady rain.

      The interviews corroborate estimates from human-rights
      groups that put the death toll in the hundreds--far
      more than the figure of 173 announced by the Uzbek
      government. Moreover, accounts from survivors cast
      strong doubt on the government's contention that most
      of those killed were armed Islamic insurgents bent on
      the overthrow of Uzbekistan's president, Islam

      Instead, the accounts portray an Uzbek government that
      resolved a tense standoff with one of the most brutal
      displays of force against civilian demonstrators since
      China's crackdown on protesters in Tiananmen Square in

      Though several dozen demonstrators roamed the edges of
      the crowd with Kalashnikov rifles slung over their
      shoulders, thousands of Uzbeks on the square that
      morning and afternoon were unarmed. Many were
      onlookers who cared little about the case against the
      23 businessmen.

      Moreover, there appears to be scant evidence to
      support government claims of an attempt to overthrow
      the regime. Speeches given on the square focused
      solely on joblessness, corruption and other economic
      troubles burdening Andijan, those interviewed said.
      Human-rights activists who monitored the three-month
      trial of the businessmen said the government's case
      was based on the testimony of witnesses who had been
      tortured or threatened to testify against the men.

      Confess or else

      Peter Bouckaert, a researcher for the New York-based
      Human Rights Watch, interviewed several witnesses
      about how investigators questioned them. "The
      interrogation tactics were, `You're going to confess
      that these businesses were engaged in extremist
      activities . . . or we'll bring your wife down here,
      and then you know what's going to happen.'"

      The 23 businessmen went on trial in February on
      charges of involvement in Akramiya, a group the
      government alleges is an Islamic extremist
      organization. The group's leader and namesake, Akram
      Yuldashev, once belonged to Hizb ut-Tahrir, an
      organization that advocates a pan-Muslim caliphate
      across Central Asia. Yuldashev has been in an Uzbek
      jail since 1999 on charges of involvement in bombings
      in Tashkent that same year.

      Many of the businessmen had longstanding ties with
      Yuldashev. Espousing his view that Muslims should give
      back to their communities, the men set aside money for
      youth sports and other charities.

      "We became very popular in Andijan," said Shamsuddin
      Atamatov, 29, a confectionery owner and one of the
      businessmen charged. "And as we grew successful, we
      became more aware of the political injustices in this
      country and we were dissatisfied with this."

      The unrest May 13 occurred as the trial neared a
      verdict. In the early morning hours, more than 50
      armed supporters of the 23 businessmen overtook a
      small military post and later a police station,
      amassing weapons from both locations, according to
      Uzbek authorities.

      The group moved on to Andijan's prison, where they
      shot to death several prison guards and freed the
      hundreds of inmates there, including the 23
      businessmen. In a cell with 11 other inmates, Atamatov
      awoke to the sound of gunfire and shouts. "They broke
      down doors and freed all of us," Atamatov said. "It
      was all over in a half-hour."

      Its size bolstered by the freed inmates, the group
      tried to seize the city's state intelligence agency
      headquarters but failed, clashing with soldiers there
      and ramming a firetruck into the front gate, said
      Alexei Volosevich, a Russian journalist for the
      Fergana.ru Web site. Volosevich reported from Andijan
      from the night of May 12 through the next day.

      Gunmen then moved on and seized the poorly guarded
      city administration building. They quickly rounded up
      hostages, including the city's prosecutor and tax
      collector, a judge and several police officers.

      Volosevich walked into the building and saw the
      hostages seated on the floor, their hands bound. He
      said two gunmen he spoke with described themselves as
      Akramiya followers. "They said they were negotiating
      with Interior Minister Zakir Almatov about gaining the
      release of Yuldashev," Volosevich said.

      Outside, thousands of Uzbeks had gathered on Babur
      Square. The gunmen had posted several dozen guards
      around the administration building and along the edge
      of the square, Volosevich said. Near the building, he
      saw other demonstrators readying Molotov cocktails.

      Several times through the morning and afternoon, Uzbek
      soldiers raced by the square and sprayed bursts of
      gunfire at the gathering in attempts to disperse the
      crowd. The brief attacks killed and wounded an unknown
      number of unarmed demonstrators.

      Bobir Mamayunusov, 20, was shot as he tried to dart
      from under a car to a nearby ditch. One bullet tore
      through his back and one went through his shoulder.
      Another demonstrator drove him to a hospital.

      As Mamayunusov ran into the hospital, Uzbek soldiers
      surrounded the driver and punched and kicked him.
      After X-rays showed that the bullets had not damaged
      any vital organs, Mamayunusov leapt out of his bed,
      clambered over a hospital fence and fled. "I was
      worried they would kill me in the hospital," he said.

      Setting the ambush

      Despite the sporadic bursts of gunfire on the plaza,
      protesters chose to stay. Several survivors said
      rumors began swirling through the crowd that Karimov
      was flying to Andijan. Believing he was coming to
      listen to their grievances, they thought the
      opportunity to confront him justified the risk.

      Karimov did fly to Andijan, but only to oversee the
      crisis. He never spoke to demonstrators.

      "We were very much waiting for the president to come
      to talk to us," Atamatov said. "Instead of the
      president, we got special forces, who took his order
      to kill people."

      Around 4 p.m., it became clear Uzbek authorities would
      not succumb to the gunmen's demands to free Yuldashev
      and other inmates that the gunmen regarded as
      political prisoners. Instead, authorities offered the
      demonstrators safe passage to Kyrgyzstan.

      Gunmen inside the administration building refused. "I
      don't know why they were offering this--we had no
      intention of going to another country," said Khasan
      Shakirov, brother of one of the group's leaders who
      was later killed, Sharifjon Shakirov. Khasan Shakirov
      was in the room during negotiations.

      About 5:30 p.m., a column of armored personnel
      carriers sped by the square. Moments later, another
      column drove up, stopped in front of the square and
      opened fire.

      Chaos ensued. Demonstrators dived to the pavement.
      Inside the administration building, the gunmen
      gathered everyone, put the hostages at the front of
      the group, went outside and joined the throngs on the
      plaza during a lull in the shooting, Shakirov said.

      Leaders of the group quickly surmised that Chulpon
      Prospekt had been left as their only escape route.
      Four other streets spoked off from Babur Square, and
      each was barricaded by a cordon of armored personnel
      carriers and soldiers, survivors said. Numbering at
      least 3,000 and separated into two groups, the
      demonstrators and their hostages began marching down
      Chulpon Prospekt.

      Women and children were positioned in the center of
      each group; men ringed the edges. For the first 500
      yards, the demonstrators walked unhindered, drenched
      by a steady rain. When they came upon the intersection
      of Parkovaya Street, they encountered a row of buses
      blocking their way.

      The men pushed one of the buses far enough to create a
      way through, and the demonstrators marched on,
      survivors said. Once the group had crossed Parkovaya
      Street, soldiers positioned on rooftops and inside
      apartment buildings opened fire.

      Most demonstrators threw themselves to the ground.
      Those who tried to flee toward the sidewalk were
      gunned down. Some threw themselves into the canals on
      either side of the street that serve as storm water
      drains. Mukhabat Rijabova, 36, simply froze.

      "I just kept shutting tight my eyes--I was so afraid
      of dying," Rijabova said. "When men in front fell,
      more men in front took their place. One boy next to me
      was shot in the forehead. His face was covered in

      When the shooting subsided, the survivors rose to
      their feet and continued walking. Muhammadjon Qodirov,
      the father of one of the businessmen charged, said
      demonstrators locked arms and chanted, "Liberty!" When
      the shooting resumed, they dived to the ground again.

      Another deadly barrage

      As the crowd approached the Chulpon cinema,
      demonstrators saw in front of them two gun-mounted
      armored personnel carriers, and soldiers positioned
      behind a line of sandbags. Without warning, the
      soldiers opened fire. The barrage killed most of the
      demonstrators in the lead group, survivors said.

      Crouching by the ground, Rijabova saw survivors
      darting toward Baynalminal Street, a side street that
      led to a labyrinth of small apartment buildings.
      Crawling on her hands and knees, she followed them.

      So many victims covered the pavement that Gulnoza
      Otobayeva, 25, had to step on bodies to make her
      escape down Baynalminal Street. "When I looked around,
      I saw so many dead people," Otobayeva said. "The
      rainwater was washing away their blood."

      It is unclear exactly how many survivors were left,
      though after a 10-hour walk about 500 eventually set
      up camp outside Kara Darya in Kyrgyzstan. Many
      survivors stayed in Andijan or sought refuge elsewhere
      before reaching the Kyrgyz border.

      One more ambush lay in store, survivors said. At the
      border, Uzbek soldiers in the village of Teshik-Tash
      fired at the approaching crowd, said Umida
      Kholmerzayeva, 46, a nurse and one of the Andijan

      Eight people died in that attack. Kholmerzayeva
      treated the wounded, including a woman who begged her
      to remove the bullet from her back. When Kholmerzayeva
      rolled her over, she saw that the gaping wound exposed
      her heart and was too large for the woman to be able
      to survive.

      "I was so surprised she could still speak,"
      Kholmerzayeva said. "I had to tell her, `I'm sorry,
      but I cannot help you.' I couldn't sleep for 10
      days--I couldn't get her out of my mind."

      Karimov's administration has insisted that Uzbek
      soldiers fired only at armed demonstrators. His
      government has effectively imposed an information
      blackout on the unrest, keeping foreign journalists
      from entering the country. He also has resisted calls
      from the United States, the United Nations, NATO and
      the European Union for an international investigation
      into what happened.

      "People came out for the first time to speak, and this
      is what happened," said Rijabova, wiping a tear from
      her cheek as she gazed over the sun-baked refugee
      camp. "No one will rise up now. People are too



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