Uzbek refugees' escape becomes political battle
Before arriving in Kyrgyzstan and forming the center of a Central Asian diplomatic storm, the men and women sweltering in tents here lived...
The Washington Post
BAZAR KORGON, Kyrgyzstan — Before arriving in Kyrgyzstan and forming the center of a Central Asian diplomatic storm, the men and women sweltering in tents here lived in Uzbekistan, the country next door. They came to the Kyrgyz border on foot the night of May 13, after Uzbek troops fired volley after volley into throngs of protesters gathered in the nearby trading city of Andijan.
Hundreds were killed. "We ran away from the death," said a construction worker who gave his name as Mohammadjan and told of seeing two nephews cut down by automatic weapons. "We came here hoping people will protect us from the death. But day by day, hope is declining."
The refugees fear that the Uzbek government will succeed in an intense campaign to have them sent back to the country they fled in terror. Four were quietly delivered to Uzbek agents in June. The fate of the remaining 450 has drawn so much attention that in some ways it recalls the 19th-century competition between the British and Russian empires for influence among rulers in the region.
In the current struggle, Uzbekistan has found allies in Russia and China, which share Uzbek President Islam Karimov's view that what happens inside a country's borders is the business of that country alone.
The three governments are leaning hard on tiny Kyrgyzstan, an impoverished nation that became a beacon for democratic aspirations in March when protesters abruptly overthrew its autocratic ruler. Some refugees said those events figured in the uprising in Andijan.
Western powers and international human-rights activists are pushing hard for the Kyrgyz government to abide by international treaties safeguarding refugees and to refuse to ship the Uzbeks home to a country notorious for torture.
"It's all these heavy authoritarian regimes putting all this pressure on the one country that has the potential to be Central Asia's single functioning democracy," said Michael Hall, regional director of the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based advocacy group.
West wants refugees
A Canadian official said yesterday the refugees will be resettled in Canada, the United States and other countries. Kyrgyz and U.N. officials earlier confirmed the refugees would be resettled in a third state.
A spokesman for Canada's immigration ministry in Ottawa said that "as part of a larger international operation with other resettlement countries, including the United States," Canada had agreed to resettle up to 50 Uzbek refugees.
Carlos Zaccagnini, head of the Kyrgyzstan mission of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, said the international rivalries had helped create a spy-novel atmosphere and that the refugees were "hostages to the whole tale."
As the refugees tell it, while seated on thin mats on the floors of U.N. tents, the story is simple. They gathered in Andijan's public square not to overthrow Karimov, but to protest his government's heavy hand in their lives, especially the economy. The flash point was the trial of 23 businessmen on charges of supporting Islamic extremism. The Uzbek government felt threatened by the businessmen's economic success, many people here say.
"We were confident that nobody would shoot us," said Mohammadin, 50, a baker whose employer had been put out of business by the government. "The same situation occurred in Kyrgyzstan, and no one was killed."
When the Uzbek troops opened fire, from rooftops, armored personnel carriers and barricades, as many as 700 people were killed, according to witnesses and rights organizations.
Much about the Andijan episode remains murky. No one has identified the armed men who moved among the protesters (in contrast to the bloodless Kyrgyz uprising). The men abducted government officials, witnesses said, and used them as human shields.
Karimov, whose government has jailed thousands of religious activists, calls the demonstrators terrorists.
The most active radical Muslim group in Uzbekistan today is Hizb ut-Tahrir, which promotes a Utopian fundamentalist vision of a worldwide caliphate but insists that it rejects violence.
David vs. Goliath
Meanwhile, the pressure mounts on Kyrgyzstan, which has a population of 5 million, compared with Uzbekistan's 26 million, and recognizes its neighbor's power. In the past, Uzbek troops have crossed the border in the name of chasing terrorists. Uzbekistan is also pressuring the United States, sharply restricting flights to a U.S. air base in the country after the State Department condemned the Andijan shootings. This month, Russia and China joined other Central Asian countries in declaring that Washington should set a date for shuttering U.S. bases in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan that were opened in advance of the war on Afghanistan.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld won assurances Tuesday from Kyrgyzstan's new leaders that they would not shut down a U.S. base on Kyrgyz soil used for combat and humanitarian missions in Afghanistan.
The U.S. air base at Manas in Kyrgyzstan and its air base at Karshi-Khanabad in southern Uzbekistan have become vital cogs in the Bush administration's anti-terrorism operations in Central Asia.
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