ANDIJAN, Uzbekistan -- Soldiers loyal to Uzbekistan's US-allied authoritarian leader unleashed heavy gunfire into thousands of demonstrators yesterday to put down an uprising that began with a prison raid that freed more than 2,000 inmates, including suspects on trial for alleged Islamic extremism.
The death toll from a day of violence in the eastern Uzbek city was unclear. The government said 12 died, but witnesses said dozens may have been killed by the troops, who rode into the square in a truck behind an armored personnel carrier as helicopters hovered overhead. A protest leader, Kabuljon Parpiyev, said the death toll could be as high as 50.
As night fell, the gunfire died down, and most of the Andijan's 350,000 people were in their homes.
Authorities said security forces had regained control of the city administration building seized earlier in the day by armed protesters. Hostages taken by the demonstrators as human shields at the building were released, a high-ranking Uzbek official said on condition that he not be named.
Facing one of the most serious challenges to his 15 years of dictatorial rule, President Islam A. Karimov flew to Andijan seeking to prevent any spread of the unrest. Less than two months ago the government of neighboring Kyrgyzstan was toppled by protests that began in a provincial area.
The United States has a military air base in Uzbekistan and maintains close counterterrorism and intelligence cooperation with the Uzbek authorities, who have been praised by the Bush administration for their cooperation in the war on terrorism. Human rights groups, however, have reported widespread cases of torture and abuse by authorities.
The riots in Andijan were sparked by the prosecution of 23 local businessmen on charges that they were members of an illegal Islamic group called Akramia, which supports jailed Islamic leader Akram Yuldashev, who was convicted of attempting to overthrow the government. Uzbek authorities also charge that the businessmen had ties with a larger radical Islamic network called Hizb-ut-Tahrir, which seeks a government based on Islam.
The prison raid and the soldiers' fusillades were in sharp contrast to the largely peaceful uprisings that sparked regime changes in the former Soviet republics of Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan in the past 18 months. Karimov is regarded as one of the harshest leaders in the former Soviet Union and apparently aims to quickly stifle threats to his regime.
The White House urged restraint by the government and the demonstrators.
''The people of Uzbekistan want to see a more representative and democratic government. But that should come through peaceful means, not through violence, and that's what our message is," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said. ''We have had concerns about human rights in Uzbekistan, but we are concerned about the outbreak of violence."
Supporters of the 23 men on trial maintain they were victims of religious repression by Karimov's secular government. The 23 are members of Akramia, named for its founder, Yuldashev, an Islamic dissident sentenced in 1999 to 17 years in prison for allegedly urging, in a pamphlet, the overthrow of Karimov. He has proclaimed his innocence.
Akramis are considered the backbone of Andijan's small-business community.
Their trial has inspired one of the largest public shows of anger at the government. In recent weeks, Uzbeks have shown increasing willingness to challenge the leadership in protests, bolstered by the March uprising in Kyrgyzstan that drove out President Askar Akayev and similar ones in Ukraine and Georgia.
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