Moscow (AsiaNews/HRW) The Uzbek government, which has hitherto rejected calls for an international inquiry, is trying to deny that last month's 'clashes' in Andijan were an outright massacre, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said yesterday.
In a report titled "Bullets Were Falling Like Rain" The Andijan Massacre May 13, 2005 released in Moscow, the New York-based human rights group accuses Uzbek authorities of a cover-up. Instead of the official death toll of 173, HRW claims the actual figure is more than 500.
"The scale of the killings and the deliberateness of the security officials means this can only be described as a massacre," Kenneth Roth, HRW executive director, said as he presented the report.
On May 12, thousands of people took to the streets in the eastern city of Andijan to protest against the trial of 23 local businessmen on charges of religious extremism. During the night, armed demonstrators were able to free the men and other prisoners.
On May 13, the protest turned into a mass rally against rising poverty and government repression. Some of the protesters were armed, Roth said and "[o]f course the government had the right and the duty to stop them. But that doesn't justify shooting unarmed people on a mass scale."
The report itself is based on 50 interviews with victims and witnesses to what happened on that day. It details how the wounded were left untreated for hours, some finished off by troops where they lay.
Eyewitnesses, who have now mostly fled to Kyrgyzstan, said that Uzbek troops opened fire without warning on the unarmed crowd which was protesting against President Islam Karimov's oppressive regime.
The official version claims that those who died in Andijan were largely armed terrorists who wanted to overthrow the government and imposed the Islamic law.
"Our investigation is a first step towards setting the record straight," Mr Roth noted. And in light of its findings, he insists the United States and the European Union suspend their cooperation with the former Soviet Republic until an international investigation gets underway, a proposition President Karimov has rejected so faronly the Uzbek parliament is currently investigating the case.
For Roth, "only a full-fledged international investigation, with access to official records, can give a true picture of the tragic events in Andijan."
With a population of 26 million, Uzbekistan is central Asia's most populous country.
It is an ally of the United States in the latter's War on Terror, and is home to an important US supply base for operations in Afghanistan.