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Graves indicate toll of Uzbek unrest

New reports cite hundreds more killed in area

ANDIJAN, Uzbekistan -- Flowers dotted the streets and freshly dug graves scarred the earth across this eastern Uzbek city yesterday as residents mourned what witnesses said were hundreds killed by security forces last week -- the worst unrest since the former Soviet republic won independence in 1991.

New reports emerged that violence in nearby towns killed hundreds more, further threatening the stability of the government of President Islam Karimov, a key US ally in the war against terrorism.

The violence puts the United States in a difficult position because it relies on Karimov's authoritarian government for an air base in the country and antiterrorism support.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said yesterday the United States was ''still trying to understand" what happened in Andijan, Uzbekistan's fourth-largest city, where government troops put down a prison uprising by alleged Islamic militants and a demonstration by citizens about dire economic conditions.

''This kind of problem is also going to be helped if you can get a more open political system in Uzbekistan. They really need more political reform and we've been saying that to the Uzbeks for some time," Rice said. ''I don't mean that they should tolerate terrorists or terrorist groups. . . . But it is a system that is politically too closed."

''The main preoccupations are now to encourage everybody to forgo any further violence, to help with the refugees that went into Kyrgyzstan out of Uzbekistan, and to try to deal with the consequences right now of this set of issues," she said.

The government has blamed Islamic extremists for the violence. The crackdown came after protesters stormed a prison, freed inmates and then seized local government offices. But many of the demonstrators were citizens complaining about poverty and unemployment.

Karimov's government has denied firing on demonstrators. However, an Associated Press reporter and other journalists witnessed troops opening fire on the crowd at Andijan's central square.

Channel One state television aired a report alleging militants in Andijan had fired at civilians. Khushnudbek Matmusayev, a medical doctor, told Channel One that the militants had fired at an ambulance, killing two medics and a driver.

It is unknown how many died in Friday's violence.

A respected local doctor in Andijan said that about 500 bodies were laid out at a school for collection by relatives. There was no independent confirmation of the claim by the doctor, who spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear for her safety; other witnesses have said 200 to 300 were killed when troops put down the uprising Friday.

Saidjahon Zaynabitdinov, head of Appeal, a local human rights advocacy group, said yesterday that government troops killed about 200 demonstrators on Saturday in Pakhtabad, about 20 miles northeast of Andijan. There was no independent confirmation of his claim.

In Andijan, several bouquets of flowers dotted the middle of one of the city's main streets. Buildings along the road were pockmarked by scattered bullet holes.

On a side street, a dozen Uzbek men wearing black-and-white embroidered skullcaps sat on benches in front of their homes, holding a mourning vigil in line with local tradition.

According to the men, Said Shakirov, a furniture maker, had heard the commotion late Friday and went to see what was happening. Shakirov, 33, was shot on a main street and tried to make it back to his home but was stopped again by soldiers just 75 feet from his house.

Troops fired on Shakirov again when he refused to stop moving after he pleaded to go home to tend to his wounds, they said.

One resident, Ilkhom, who gave only his first name out of fear for his safety, said Shakirov bled to death while begging for help for hours. The soldiers refused to let anyone leave their homes to assist him.

''No one could help him," Ilkhom said, pointing at bullet holes in windows, a fence, and on a gate on the street next to a patch of gravel where Shakirov died.

Andijan was quiet yesterday after a night of gunfire. Residents said government troops were fighting militants in Bogishonol, an outlying district of the city, but the claim could not be confirmed.

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