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Uzbek relatives search for bodies


• Witnesses describe Uzbek bloodbath
• Islamist group denies Uzbek violence
• Key facts about Uzbekistan
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Uzbek soldiers opened fire on anti-government protesters. ITN's Bill Neely reports. (May 14)
Human rights
United States

KARA-SUU, Kyrgyzstan (CNN) -- Anguished relatives have been searching for bodies in the Uzbek city of Andijan, where hundreds were killed in a military crackdown after anti-government protests that hardline President Islam Karimov blamed on Islamic radicals.

Britain on Sunday said the violence was "a clear abuse of human rights," the strongest international rebuke of the violence yet and London's most severe criticism in years of Tashkent, a key U.S. ally in its war on terrorism.

"The situation is very serious, there has been a clear abuse of human rights, a lack of democracy and a lack of openness," Foreign Secretary Jack Straw told the BBC.

Earlier on Sunday witnesses described how Uzbek soldiers fired into a crowd in Andijan, including women, children and their own police comrades begging them not to shoot.

Soldiers later moved in among "literally hundreds" of bodies, finishing off some of the wounded with a single bullet, said one witness to Friday's killings outside the city's School No. 15.

The two independent eyewitness accounts to Reuters, both by men who live nearby but who asked not to be identified, could not be independently verified. (Full story)

Residents who fled Andijan 40 kilometers (25 miles) south to the Kyrgyz border town of Kara-Suu estimated the number killed on Friday and Saturday at 450, but journalists were barred from the area and could not independently confirm the death toll.

Witnesses said Sunday that many people had stayed home from work while others were burying their dead.

Just a few hundred meters (yards) from Kara-Suu, on the Uzbek side of the border, about 1,500 people gathered for several hours Sunday to hear anti-government speeches with no sign of Uzbek soldiers around, except for a burned out military vehicle nearby, according to journalist Ethan Wilensky-Lanford.

United Nations relief experts were dispatched along the border to assess the needs of refugees, although there did not appear to be a mass exodus from the region into Kyrgyzstan. On Saturday, a U.N. official said 528 people from Uzbekistan crossed the border into the Jalal-Abad area of Kyrgyzstan.

The roads leading from Andijan appeared to be blocked by Uzbek troops Sunday.

The violence began Thursday when a group of citizens angry about the arrest of several prominent business owners stormed the prison where they were being held on charges of religious extremism.

At one point, about 10,000 protesters gathered in the city center to demand the resignation of President Karimov and his authoritarian government. The president's office described them as criminals and extremists.

Karimov on Saturday blamed the violence on the Islamic radical group Hizb ut-Tahrir and said their goal was to establish an Islamic state and to destroy the current constitutional system.

Hizb ut-Tahrir has denied the accusations.

"The blame ... has to be with Islam Karimov and his oppressive regime which has tortured and jailed thousands of innocent victims," Imran Wahid, a Hizb ut-Tahrir spokesman in London, told Reuters.

"We want to undermine and overthrow the regime of Islam Karimov by peaceful means," he added. (Full story)

"The blame for the violence should not lie with people who live under oppression," he added.

Speaking at a news conference in the capital Tashkent, Karimov said he never gave an order to shoot as the unrest unfolded. He said 10 police were killed but on the criminal side "many, many more were killed and hundreds wounded."

There has been tension, marked sometimes by arrests and violence, between Karimov's government and followers of a more fundamental brand of Islam than what is sanctioned by Karimov. That movement has been centered in eastern Uzbekistan, which is somewhat isolated from the rest of Uzbekistan by mountains.

During the Soviet era, residents of the region were closely aligned with their neighbors in what is now southern Kyrgyzstan, where a large population of ethnic Uzbeks live.

Just a few miles from the Uzbek border is the city of Osh, the birthplace of a grassroots movement that successfully ousted Kyrgyz President Askar Akayev in March.

Censorship during protests

Journalist watchdog group Reporters Without Borders has expressed concern over the expulsion of journalists from Andijan.

"When the authorities keep journalists away from a conflict zone it is most often to hide abuses committed there. We are very concerned and urge President Islam Karimov to allow our colleagues to cover these events," the group said.

It reported that CNN, NTV and BBC TV were cut and Russian and Uzbek Web sites blocked Friday during the bloody confrontations, but that state TV and the national news agency continued to provide reports.

International reaction

Among those expressing deep concern Saturday was Russian President Vladimir Putin, who said the situation posed a "threat to the stability of Central Asia," according to the Kremlin press office.

The instability in Uzbekistan follows the collapse and ouster of Askar Akayev's government in neighboring Kyrgyzstan during protests in March.

The U.S. Embassy in Tashkent said Saturday that "American citizens in Andijan are encouraged to stay off the streets" and to contact the embassy directly or register via its Web site.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said: "We've been very clear about the human rights situation there, been very factual about it, but unfortunately the facts are not pretty."

Also monitoring the situation is the Tashkent office of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

CNN's Mike Yardley contributed to this report.

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