Andrew Osborn








DEATH IN UZBEKISTAN: "In the narrow lane, the machine guns clattered remorselessly for two hours"

Independent On Sunday, 22nd May 2005 12:55

Witnesses and participants of last week"s bloody Uzbekistan massacre reveal the dreadful secrets of that Friday 13th in May. Peter Boehm in Andijan and Andrew Osborn in Moscow report

The number of people murdered on "Bloody Friday" 13 May in the Uzbek town of Andizhan is at least 500, not 169 as the authorities now claim, an investigation by The Independent on Sunday can reveal. It is also highly probable that, separately in other towns at different times, at least a further 200 people were killed.

But our inquiries have also established that the incident which sparked the massacre was initiated by the storming of a prison which led to the "insurgents" themselves also murdering 54 men and women in cold blood.

While some of these "insurgents" that the autocratic government of Islam Karimov was seeking to quell in Andizhan were armed, the majority of those killed were civilians. Most were men but women and children were also murdered and are now buried in unmarked mass graves as part of what witnesses say is "a massive cover-up". This extends to officials lying on death certificates, concealing bodies from public view and blasting the town"s blood-stained streets with high-velocity water cannons.

Two key witnesses interviewed by this newspaper " an "insurgent" who played a key role in the "uprising" and a pro-government former policeman taken hostage by the insurgents " have filled in other gaps in horrifying detail. The crowds, it has been established, were mown down by powerful coaxial 7.62mm machine guns mounted on two Russian-built BTR-80 armoured personnel carriers. Such cannons can unleash 2,000 rounds barely pausing for breath before they need to be reloaded.

A military helicopter was used for reconnaissance purposes and Uzbek troops armed with Kalashnikov assault rifles opened fire on the demonstrators creating a deadly field of fire with the BTR-80s from which there was no escape. The soldiers made sure they had done their work well. After the shooting had finished they went from body to body delivering "control shots" to the back of people"s heads and scoured the town"s streets for survivors to finish off. Uzbekistan"s President Islam Karimov contends that nobody gave the order to open fire.

In reality he was in command of the situation having flown to Andizhan from the capital Tashkent and almost certainly personally authorised the use of such deadly force. The "insurgents" themselves were not Islamist radicals as claimed by the authorities but largely devout Muslims the following the teachings of a jailed former maths teacher called Akram Yuldashev.

Far from being spontaneous, however, their "uprising" was meticulously planned and they too were not averse to murdering people. The IoS has learnt that they killed 54 men and women, most of them prison guards, when seizing a local prison to free its inmates.

We have also discovered that the insurgents encouraged the crowd to vent their fury on the 40 or so hostages they had captured " policemen, judges and soldiers. Hostages were beaten and received gunshot and stab wounds before being made to parade through Andizhan"s streets, an event that immediately preceded what was to become the now notorious massacre.

The IoS has managed to piece together the most complete sequence of events assembled so far. The "uprising" began in the early hours of Friday morning when at around 12.30 a group of around 30 insurgents attacked a police station seizing weapons. An hour later they attacked a military garrison capturing more weapons and equipment " Kalashnikovs, Makarov pistols, hand grenades and even an army lorry.

Their next stop was the local prison where they released up to 2,000 inmates including 23 prominent local businessmen accused of Islamist extremism. The businessmen"s trial was a key trigger for unrest. Sentence had yet to be passed but the insurgents, some of whom were friends or relatives, were sure they were going to be given stiff jail terms, which they considered unjust.

But at the prison the insurgents did their own killing, murdering guards many of whose weapons were actually unloaded, a government-ordered precaution to prevent them from falling into inmates" hands. Taking hostages along the way they then tried to seize three key local buildings, Andizhan"s administrative headquarters, the local branch of the Interior Ministry and the office of the National Security Service. They succeeded in occupying the administrative headquarters but met armed resistance at the other two buildings and were repelled. When inside they phoned relatives telling them to join them and that was when crowds that would later swell to several thousand began to form in central Andizhan.

The insurgents used loudspeaker equipment to begin voicing their grievances " injustice, poverty and corruption in government. People in the crowd joined in and began to berate the hostages who were hauled before them. Negotiations dragged on with the insurgents demanding the release of people they considered wrongly imprisoned, including Yuldashev, the teacher turned Muslim philosopher who was jailed for 17 years in 1999.

Seated in his house in the old part of Andizhan, a surviving insurgent who does not want his name published talks calmly about his actions. About how he took part in the attack on the prison and then the administrative HQ and then managed to survive what followed.

Sitting cross-legged on a mat, he talks about how he read Yuldashev"s pamphlet The Right Path. "Before I had been in trouble, but it showed me that the most important thing in life is to be merciful and respect other people."

He started to work for a construction company belonging to one of the 23 businessmen who themselves tried to live according to Yuldashev"s own interpretation of the Koran. Their firms made clothes and furniture and built houses. They paid above average salaries and donated thousands to schools, orphanages and homes for the elderly.

In a country like Uzbekistan with its crumbling Soviet-era industry where the aviation factory in Tashkent is reduced to turning out pots and pans, their achievements seemed like a minor miracle. But when they were jailed and accused of Islamist extremism the insurgent saw his world fall apart and his income disappear overnight and joined others in picketing the court house every day for four months in a row. He won"t say how long the uprising/jail break was planned or who planned it but makes it clear that the trigger was the trial. "Even after 106 people gave testimony saying they were innocent, the prosecutor asked for them to be given between three and seven years and the court pronounced them guilty. All we wanted was justice."

He was among the crowd that at around 5pm on Friday 13 left Andizhan"s central square and wended its way north along Prospekt Julpan. An army helicopter buzzed overhead and two BTR-80 armoured personnel carriers appeared. The crowd, which numbered around 2,000 people " not the 10,000 or more widely reported " presented a strange spectacle. It included armed men, but also unarmed demonstrators, including women and children.

They had tied the hostages in rows of five and ordered them to walk in front for protection. But their path was blocked by the two armoured personnel carriers flanked by Kalashnikov-toting troops. Other soldiers had taken up positions on the overlooking roofs. At that point the Prospect is narrow and when the shooting began it was hard to take cover. "Nobody thought that they would shoot at us," says the insurgent who walked in the middle of the crowd. "But they did. And everyone dived for cover. Someone next to me was immediately killed."

The machine guns clattered away remorselessly for two hours and people hid beneath dead bodies in a desperate attempt to avoid the wall of bullets. By the time darkness fell the insurgent had been shot in the arm. He collapsed next to a wall and fitfully fell asleep. When dawn broke he heard more shooting and saw two soldiers combing the dead for survivors. "I closed my eyes and prayed to Allah, that they would spare me." He described how they weeded out survivors. " "Are you the only one still alive?" they shouted. "Get up. Faster!" " Then a shot would ring out and so it went on.

Eventually the wounded man was found by three civilians who took him to a hospital where the bullet was removed. His account of events is corroborated by a witness who saw the events unfold from a very different perspective. Khodirjon Ergashev is a former policeman who has become a human rights activist for an organisation said to be close to the government. Ergashev was one of those taken hostage by the protesters. When he left the police nearly 10 years ago, he was head of Andizhan"s criminal police department. He was taken hostage when he turned up to try to document the events in his capacity as a human rights activist.

He says his hands were bound behind his back and that he had a conversation with one of the insurgent leaders, Sharifjon Shakirov, a brother of two of the freed businessmen. "He explained to me that the only thing they wanted was justice. He assured me that they would not use their weapons but only peaceful means."

He and the other hostages were presented to the crowd, bound together by rope strung around their necks. "The terrorists started to accuse us, especially the judges, of having abused our offices. After that the mob started to beat some of the hostages. One of the men stabbed me in the backside with his knife."

His loyalty to the regime did not, however, spare him the fate of the rest of the crowd. "Three or four bodies fell on top of me. This really saved my life," he remembers. He says he lay flat for eight hours. "I lay on the ground and did not raise my head for fear of catching a bullet."

It is clear is that the Uzbek government perpetrated an atrocity against its own civilians and failed to distinguish between "insurgents" and ordinary protesters. They have also rejected international calls for an independent inquiry into the massacre. It seems unlikely that those responsible " the soldiers and their commanders and President Islam Karimov " will be held accountable for what happened in Andizhan.

As for what he plans to do next the insurgent interviewed by this paper gives a wry smile of defiance. "We"ll see..."