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'I See Troops Fire On
Unarmed Protesters'

By Galima Bukharbaeva

15 May, 2005
The Observer

The assault began at 5.20pm local time. At least nine people were killed in the first volley of gunfire, their fellow demonstrators carrying their blood-covered bodies inside the compound of the Andijan regional government building, which was being held by the protesters. We witnessed the first shootings, but after that we were unable to count the casualties.
The assault by government security forces was not unexpected. The protesters, who had taken control of the local government building, were anticipating that the authorities would use force and had prepared as best they could. Barricades went up, fashioned out of furniture, even safes, dragged out of the government offices. In the compound, men were making Molotov cocktails.

In the course of Friday, at least 10,000 people gathered on the square outside - some participants said it was nearer 30,000.

Then the eight-wheeled armoured personnel carriers, or APCs, appeared out of nowhere. The first column of vehicles thundered past without taking any aggressive action.

But a second column, arriving five minutes later, suddenly opened fire on the crowds, without even slowing down to take aim.

One IWPR reporter had a lucky escape when a bullet tore right through the rucksack he was wearing, making a neat hole in his notebook and press card.

Unarmed people on the square, who included women and children, started screaming and trying to run away. Inside the regional government, a core of protesters who had got hold of Kalashnikov assault rifles moved outside to defend themselves. It was pretty clear they would lose. Overhead, helicopters circled, clearly spying out where the biggest concentrations of people were.

The nucleus of this popular rebellion was formed by friends and relatives of 23 men on trial this week at Andijan's city court. After hearings on 10 and 11 May, judges adjourned the session to consider their verdict.

For the thousands of people waiting outside the courtroom, the sentence was a foregone conclusion. The men were members of a dangerous Islamic group called the Akramia, prosecutors insisted, and deserved to be locked up.

The defendants and their many supporters said they were innocent local businessmen, being framed by a regime determined to find 'enemies'. Akramia was a total fiction dreamed up by the authorities.

When I arrived on the scene, I was able to piece together some of the events that led to the final explosion of public anger on the night of 12-13 May.

Sharif Shakirov, the brother of one of the accused, told me that straight after the court hearings, officers of the National Security Service, the SNB, started arresting people who had been outside the court.

The arrests continued through 12 May, and that night people went to try to get their friends and family members out of detention. They started at traffic police offices, and as numbers built up they moved towards a military unit based in the city, where they forced troops on to the defensive and seized Kalashnikovs.

As the night went on, they went to the regional SNB building, where the newly- arrested people were being held. There was gunfire as SNB officers held off the crowds. Protest leaders said at least 30 people were killed, although there have been no verified casualty figures.

By 1am on Friday, the crowds had stormed the regional government building, and they were to hold onto it and the surrounding area of the town until the APCs rolled in the following evening.

There seems little chance now that this confrontation will be resolved without more bloodshed.

Uzbek interior minister, Zokir Almatov, spoke to one of the protest organisers, Kabuljon Parpiev, by phone before the troops moved in. At first he seemed receptive to their demand for the release of Akram Yuldashev - a jailed Andijan man accused of founding the Akramia group.

But when Almatov rang back later, his mood had changed and, according to Parpiev, 'he said there would be an assault, even if they had to kill 300 or 400 people'.

As I left the scene to file this report, the shooting was continuing.

· The Institute for War & Peace Reporting is a London-based independent non-profit organisation supporting regional media and democratic change. For further details on this project visit IWPR's website:

Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2005











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