Massacre in Uzbekistan

Up to 500 protesters feared dead. Ex-ambassador accuses UK of failing democracy movement

By Stephen Khan and Francis Elliott in London and Peter Boehm in Tashkent

05/15/05 "The Independent" - - Hundreds of protesters are reported to have been gunned down in bloody clashes with government forces that have ravaged eastern Uzbekistan.

One human rights observer in the eastern city of Andizhan said that up to 500 people may have perished in the shootings and the gun battles that followed. A doctor spoke of "many, many dead", witnesses said 200 to 300 people were shot dead, and an AP reporter saw at least 30 bodies in Andijan. As night fell, tension was high, with armoured vehicles positioned at crossroads and trucks blocking main thoroughfares. Terrified demonstrators tried to flee the country, seen as a key ally by Britain and the US in the war on terror.

As blood-spattered bodies were lifted from the streets of Andizhan, survivors and thousands of others packed their bags and headed for neighbouring Kyrgyzstan. Some made it across the border and were in refugee camps.

In a severe rebuke to London and Washington's approach to the region, Britain's former ambassador to the country yesterday said the countries had swallowed Uzbek propaganda that sought to portray the democracy movement as a brand of Islamic extremism.

Craig Murray told the IoS that the Government had to take some responsibility for the unfolding events because it had failed to support those trying to oppose the dictatorship of President Islam Karimov. He revealed that he visited Andizhan a year ago and met those trying to build a democratic opposition movement. In a bid to bolster their cause he asked the UK government to fund them. His requests were turned down by the Foreign Office.

"The Americans and British wouldn't do anything to help democracy in Uzbekistan," he said. Uzbekistan provides a base for US forces engaged in anti-terrorism operations in neighbouring Afghanistan.

Mr Murray added: "We didn't provide support for those who were trying to develop democratic opposition, and that includes these people in Andizhan. People are turning to violence because we ... gave them no support."

The former ambassador, who left the Foreign Office earlier this year after accusing the British Government of accepting intelligence gained under torture by Uzbek authorities, had called for the pro-democracy activists to be supported by the West, as elsewhere in the former Soviet Union. His requests to London were turned down.

"The Americans were making a distinction between human rights training, which they were happy to do, and pro-democracy training, which they weren't."

The Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, insisted yesterday that the UK had "consistently made clear to the authorities in Uzbekistan that the repression of dissent and discontent is wrong and they urgently need to deal with patent failings in respect of human and civil rights".

Andrew MacKinlay, Labour MP for Thurrock and a senior member of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the last parliament, said: "I deeply regret that [the Foreign Office] did not do more to help the pro-democracy movement."

Sir Menzies Campbell, deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats, said, "Rather than use force to impose democracy, as in Iraq, should we not be more assiduous in promoting democratic movements in countries like Uzbekistan?"

Battles raged on Friday when rebel gunmen sprung hundreds of people they regard as political prisoners from a jail in Andizhan.

As bodies were picked up from the streets yesterday, Saidzhakhon Zainatbitdinov, an independent human rights worker said: "The total number of deaths could reach 500 people." Earlier, President Karimov claimed that 10 police and troops had been killed, and many more "rebels".

The Kremlin expressed its concern over the "danger of the destabilisation of the Central Asian region". 

2005 Independent News & Media (UK) Ltd.

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