Andrew Osborn








Bullets "fell like rain" during Uzbek massacre

The Independent, 8th June 2005 12:55

By Andrew Osborn in Moscow

The United States has come under fresh international pressure to close its military base in Uzbekistan and drop the country"s President as a strategic ally after Human Rights Watch released a damning report into the recent Andijan massacre.

The New-York based human rights organisation said its investigation into the events of 13 May left it in no doubt that the Uzbek government had systematically slaughtered hundreds of its own citizens in a "massacre" and then tried to cover up the atrocities. The evidence it had uncovered was so compelling and the Uzbek government"s duplicity, guilt and intransigence so obvious, it added, that Washington was morally obliged to shut its air base in the south of the country.

"Camp Stronghold Freedom", or K2, an air base near the southern town of Khanabad, was originally set up to supply the US invasion of neighbouring Afghanistan, and continues to play a role in Washington"s "war against terror". Human Rights Watch said Washington was in negotiations that would allow it to keep a base there permanently. It called upon the US to insist upon an independent international investigation, something the government of Islam Karimov has repeatedly rejected, and to sever military and financial ties in the event of continued refusal.

"Yes, we would be giving up an asset in Uzbekistan," Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, said in Moscow. "But if we don"t act when the government slaughters hundreds of its own civilians, when are we going to act?"

Mr Roth said the base negotiations should be suspended. A deal would lead to "a massive influx of revenue" and new US-funded infrastructure. In the light of his organisation"s report, entitled Bullets were Falling Like Rain, he said such aid would be "absolutely inappropriate".

Mr Karimov should be dumped as an ally, he added. "I hope that the Bush administration realises that Karimov is no longer an asset but has turned into a deep liability."

Mr Roth accused the EU of being reluctant to take concrete steps to express its displeasure. Brussels has a Partnership and Co-operation Agreement with Tashkent, under which Uzbekistan receives about EUR16m.

"The EU has been reluctant to suspend it, saying it will lose its leverage," said Mr Roth. But, he argued, there was in fact no better time to really make that leverage count than now.

Mr Roth said his organisation"s report was based on first-hand testimony from 50 victims and eyewitnesses. He said there was no other word to describe what happened on 13 May than a massacre, that the Uzbek government"s explanation of what happened was "completely false", and that government troops had "systematically mown down" civilians. "This was a massacre pure and simple. There was no justification whatsoever."

He described what then followed as a cover-up. Witnesses were intimidated, bodies swiftly hidden, bullet holes plastered, and blood washed away.

Central Asia is of strategic importance to several countries, he conceded, but that did not mean any government should turn a blind eye to the Andijan massacre. "China, Russia and the United States are all vying for influence in central Asia, but I hope that none of those governments are willing to buy that influence with the death of hundreds of innocent civilians."

Human Rights Watch said there was insufficient access and information to provide an exact death toll, but eyewitness accounts suggested a number approaching 500. The Uzbek authorities say 173 were killed.