Eighteen people were killed and 243 injured during unrest in Uzbekistan’s autonomous province of Karakalpakstan last week, Uzbek authorities said on Monday, the worst episode of violence in the Central Asian nation in 17 years.
Security forces detained 516 people during the protests, which erupted over plans to curtail Karakalpakstan’s autonomy, but have now released many of them, the National Guard press office said at a briefing.
On Saturday, President Shavkat Mirziyoyev abandoned plans to amend articles of the constitution related to Karakalpakstan’s sovereignty and its right to secede. He also declared a month-long state of emergency in the northwestern province.
Official reports said that protesters had marched through the provincial capital Nukus last Friday and tried to seize local government buildings.
According to the Attorney General’s Office, 18 people died “from serious injuries” suffered during the clashes. Russia’s RIA news agency quoted the head of the National Guard as saying the death toll was made up of 14 civilians and four law enforcement officers.
Two exiled opposition politicians in contact with people on the ground told Reuters they believed the true figure was much higher. It was not possible to independently establish the number of dead.
Situated on the shores of the Aral Sea, for decades a site of environmental disaster, Karakalpakstan is home to the Karakalpaks, a minority ethnic group whose language is distinct from, but related to, Uzbek.
“The Karakalpaks are not Uzbeks… They have their own traditions, culture and laws,” Aman Sagidullayev, leader of the Norway-based Alga Karakalpakstan independence party, told Reuters, accusing the government of carrying out a “punitive operation”.
A group of opposition politicians and activists calling themselves the Karakalpakstan government-in-exile published an appeal to Mirziyoyev.
They called for the release of the arrested protesters, the dissolution of the Karakalpak government and new elections, and a review of the actions of law enforcement agencies, including “the unjustified and disproportionate use of force that led to human casualties, torture and arbitrary detention.
They complained of discrimination against their language and the “silencing and distortion” of the region’s history.
Russia, with which former Soviet Uzbekistan has close ties, said the matter was an internal matter for Uzbekistan. The Russian Foreign Ministry said it was confident authorities would manage to normalize the situation and said the problems should be resolved by “legal means” rather than riots.
The European Union called for “an open and independent investigation into the violent events in Karakalpakstan.”
Mirziyoyev’s office said he had discussed the matter with EU Council President Charles Michel and that the riots had been incited by “criminal elements”.
An exiled Uzbek opposition politician, Pulat Ahunov, told Reuters the curfew imposed during the state of emergency and tight security measures appeared to have stabilized the situation, but there was still a risk of ethnic clashes.
There are an estimated 700,000 Karakalpaks among Uzbekistan’s 34 million people, most of them in the autonomous republic. The geographic and linguistic proximity has led many to seek work and sometimes to move to neighboring Kazakhstan.
Some observers believe that Tashkent’s misjudged attempt to restrict Karakalpakstan’s autonomy (Mirziyoyev himself has criticized local parliamentarians for failing to inform him of public opposition) may have been an attempt to prevent any rise in separatism in the context of the war in Ukraine. .
In 2005, Uzbek security forces crushed armed protests in the city of Andizhan, killing 173 people in the clashes, according to official reports. The government at the time blamed the crisis in Andizhan, located in the opposite eastern part of Uzbekistan, on Islamic extremists.
(Reporting by Olzhas Auyezov; Additional reporting by Mark Trevelyan in London; Editing by Alison Williams and Kevin Liffey)