President Islam Karimov claimed yesterday that authorities tried to negotiate a peaceful end to protests, but that troops were forced to open fire when insurgents who had seized a government building attempted to break through an advancing line of Uzbek police and soldiers.
He said 10 government troops and "many more" militants died in fighting on Friday in the eastern city of Andizhan. Relatives of the victims condemned the government, accusing troops of killing innocent civilians. Witnesses said 200 people to 300 people were shot dead.
Soldiers loyal to Karimov, who has maintained tight control over this Central Asian nation, fired on thousands of demonstrators on Friday to put down an uprising that began when armed men freed 2,000 inmates from prison, including suspects on trial for alleged Islamic extremism. The US State Department expressed concern on Friday that members of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which is on the US list of terrorist groups, were freed.
Karimov said at least 100 people were wounded in the Friday clashes. He didn't specify who fired first.
Hundreds of angry protesters gathered yesterday at the site of the violence, placing six bodies on display from among the scores of people witnesses said were killed in fighting. Knots of bystanders watched as men covered other bloodied bodies with white shrouds.
Demonstrators, some with tears in their eyes, condemned the government for firing on women and children.
Fleeing the violence, some 4,000 Uzbek residents headed yesterday to the border. Kyrgyz border guards were awaiting a government decision on whether to allow them in, said Gulmira Borubayeva, a spokeswoman for Kyrgyzstan's border guard service.
Karimov said yesterday that authorities tried to negotiate a peaceful way out -- but won't yield to the protesters' demand -- which he described as excessive -- for freedom for all their followers across the Fergana Valley.
"To accept their terms would mean that we are setting a precedent that no other country in the world would accept," Karimov told a news conference in the capital, Tashkent.
The Uzbek leader denied that forces would target innocent civilians. "In Uzbekistan, nobody fights against women, children or the elderly," Karimov said.
He said the government also earlier offered the demonstrators free passage out of the city in buses -- with their weapons, seized in attacks on a police station and military outpost.
But a protest leader, Kabuljon Parpiyev, said Interior Minister Zakir Almatov didn't sound willing to negotiate in a phone call on Friday. "He said, `We don't care if 200, 300 or 400 people die. We have force and we will chuck you out of there anyway,'" Parpiyev quoted Almatov as saying.
In Washington, the White House urged restraint by both sides. "The people of Uzbekistan want to see a more representative and democratic government. But that should come through peaceful means, not through violence," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said on Friday.
No government forces were at the square early yesterday, but a few blocks away, about 30 soldiers clad in flak jackets and armed with assault rifles stood ready for action.