KORASUV, Uzbekistan -- Rebels cherishing the prospect of a strict Islamic state were firmly in control of this border town yesterday, throwing up a new challenge to the government as it tried to prove to skeptical diplomats that its troops didn't fire on innocent civilians.
''We will be building an Islamic state here in accordance with the Koran," rebel leader Bakhtiyor Rakhimov said in Korasuv, a town of 20,000. ''People are tired of slavery."
The government of President Islam Karimov dismissed those claims as ''nonsense," but Rakhimov said he has 5,000 followers ready to fight any troops that try to crush the rebellion.
There was no sign of Uzbek officials in Korasuv yesterday. The officials apparently fled the town when rioters attacked police and government offices Saturday, a day after the violent confrontation in the nearby city of Andijan.
The rebels in Korasuv did not appear to be armed. ''We don't have weapons, but if they come and attack us we will fight even with knives," Rakhimov said.
Regardless of officials' attempt to shrug it off, the insurgency in Korasuv ratchets up the stakes for Uzbekistan, a US ally in the war against terrorism. Observers of the impoverished Central Asia region have long feared that any social unrest could be used by Islamic groups to promote their own goals.
The uprising in Andijan that set off the violence Friday focused largely on social and economic demands. But it may have provided the opening Islamic militants have craved.
Karimov's government has blamed the unrest on militants and has denied that troops fired on any civilians, though an AP reporter saw troops opening fire on protesters in Andijan on Friday. The government cites 169 dead in Andijan, but opposition activists say more than 700 were killed -- more than 500 in Andijan and about 200 in Pakhtabad -- most of them civilians. Interior Minister Zakir Almatov vehemently dismissed allegations of a crackdown by troops in Pakhtabad yesterday.
Judging by Friday's shooting, the government's first response was to crush the Andijan uprising before it could spread. But the emergence of a second hotspot in Korasuv, 20 miles to the southeast on the border with Kyrgyzstan, has coincided with an intense international focus on Uzbekistan -- attention that may be staying Karimov's hand.
Uzbek officials took foreign diplomats and journalists on a lightning-quick tour of Andijan yesterday, showing them a prison and the local administration building and arranging meetings with local officials, as the top UN human rights official called for an independent investigation.
The delegation was kept blocks away from the people of Andijan, leaving little chance for an objective assessment of Friday's violence.
''We blocked a few roads for your security," Almatov told the delegation as it was bused along streets lined with cordons of troops and police.
Inside the gutted administration building, a local official pointed at signs of looting and described how militants allegedly executed local officials whom they took hostage and used civilians as a shield as they tried to flee.
Almatov ignored a reporter's request to visit to a school where a prominent doctor had said 500 bodies were stored after the violence. The doctor spoke on condition of anonymity out of fears for her safety.
After three hours in Andijan, the delegation was treated to a lavish lunch of the national lamb-and-rice dish, plov, and flown back to the capital, Tashkent. Some diplomats complained the trip was too short and that there was no opportunity to speak to residents.
''I think we need to be realistic about how much can be achieved in a whistle-stop tour of ambassadors in a large delegation format over such a short period," said British Ambassador David Moran. ''I think what we need now is a systematic process of openness that will enable the international community to make an authoritative assessment of the scale and nature of what happened here."
It was difficult to assess how great a force Rakhimov and his Islamic followers in Korasuv represent. Ikbol Mirsaitov, a Kyrgyz specialist on Islam, speculated that some of the rebels may have been people who escaped from prison in Andijan on Friday, because they had short beards, indicating they had just grown them.