KORASUV, Uzbekistan – A Muslim rebel group claimed Wednesday it had seized control of a small Uzbek town on the border of Kyrgyzstan and vowed to build an Islamic state. Diplomats and U.N. officials toured a nearby city where government troops fired on demonstrators, reportedly killing hundreds.
The leader of the rebel group, Bakhtiyor Rakhimov, said his forces controlled Korasuv, a town of 20,000, and were ready to fight any government troops that came to crush his rebellion. An AP reporter in Korasuv saw no sign of government officials in the town.
“The town is in the hands of people. People are tired of slavery,” Rakhimov told The Associated Press while leaning down from the back of a horse. “We will be building an Islamic state here in accordance with the Quran.”
The group claimed to have 5,000 militants.
The government of President Islam Karimov quickly shrugged off Rakhimov’s claims.
“It’s all sheer nonsense, everything is normal there,” Uzbek Interior Minister Zakir Almatov said when asked whether the government would move against the insurgents in Korasuv.
The uprising in Korasuv began with attacks on police and government posts Saturday, a day after the region exploded in unrest when thousands of protesters took to the streets of Andijan, Uzbekistan’s fourth-largest city.
The unrest was sparked economic hardship and rage over the trial of 23 Muslims accused of being members of a group allied with the outlawed radical Islamic party Hizb-ut-Tahrir. The group seeks to create a worldwide Islamic state and has been forced underground throughout most of Central Asia and Russia.
Karimov’s hardline secular regime has a long history of repressing Muslims who worship outside state-approved mosques.
Karimov blamed the unrest in Andijan on extremist Islamic groups that seek to overthrow his secular government and create an Islamic state. The government has denied that troops fired on any civilians, though an AP reporter saw troops shooting at protesters in Andijan on Friday.
Troops loyal to the government put down the protest Friday in Andijan and reportedly shot and killed civilians in another town, Pakhtabad, over the weekend.
Almatov on Wednesday dismissed as “nonsense” allegations of a crackdown by troops in Pakhtabad.
“Clashes only occurred in Andijan,” he said.
Accounts of the death toll have varied greatly so far. The government said 169 died in Andijan. Opposition activists say more than 700 were killed — more than 500 in Andijan and about 200 in Pakhtabad — most of them civilians.
In response to a request by Britain and others, Uzbek authorities allowed a group of 35 diplomats and 30 journalists to visit Andijan on Wednesday. They arrived on a government-organized flight to investigate the reports of heavy bloodshed, but British Ambassador David Moran expressed reservations that much would be accomplished.
“I think we need to be realistic about how much can be achieved in a whistle-stop tour of ambassadors in a large delegation format over such a short period,” he said. “I think what we need now is a systematic process of openness that will enable the international community to make an authoritative assessment of the scale and the nature of what happened here.”
The group, traveling under police escort, toured a prison and an administrative building seized by militants during Friday’s violence. It was unclear whether they saw the square outside the local government building where Friday’s violence occurred.
“The goal of the trip is to disavow media allegations that did not correspond to reality,” Uzbek Deputy Foreign Minister Ilkhom Nematov said.
Authorities did not allow the visitors to roam freely, citing security concerns, and showed them local residents who backed the official version of events. One of them, Tursunbai Rustamov, said he was proud of his son, a police officer, who was killed by militants.
In another section of Andijan, which the foreign delegation did not visit, dozens of heavily armed troops moved into a neighborhood in what looked like a special operation that included snipers watching from rooftops. No shooting was heard.
Also, U.N. officials toured Andijan’s regional emergency hospital, which was treating more than 100 people wounded in the riots. Valikhan Khakimov, the head of the regional health department, said they were treating 72 civilians and 34 law enforcement officials.
Nigara Khidoyatova, head of the opposition Free Peasants Party, has said her party reached its figure of 745 killed in Andijan and Pakhtabad by speaking to relatives of the missing and attending funerals.
Khidoyatova’s casualty estimate could not be independently verified. Karimov dismissed the claim, saying Khidoyatova “needs psychiatric treatment.”
Karimov’s restrictive economic polices and widespread official graft in the government have created an army of desperately poor and jobless youth who have become an easy target for recruitment by Islamic groups.
Karimov banned all secular opposition political parties in the early 1990s and jailed or forced into exile their main leaders.