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Thousands of Uzbeks fleeing

Human rights monitors report hundreds of people killed


• Islamist group denies Uzbek violence
• Key facts about Uzbekistan
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Uzbek soldiers opened fire on anti-government protesters. ITN's Bill Neely reports. (May 14)

(CNN) -- Thousands were trying to flee the eastern Uzbek city of Andijan on Saturday, leaving behind the flaming wreckage of a former government building torched on the second day of violent anti-government demonstrations.

Many of the Uzbeks passed into Kyrgyzstan at a border crossing; others were seen building a makeshift bridge over a canal at the border, journalist Ethan Wilensky-Lanford told CNN.

The exodus came one day after government troops fired on civilians in the wake of the anti-government protest, human rights monitors in Uzbekistan said.

They say hundreds of people were killed, Russia's Interfax news agency reported Saturday.

Information on events late Friday and Saturday was sketchy, because police escorted journalists, including Wilensky-Lanford, from Tajikistan Saturday. The number of people fleeing ranged from 3,500 to 10,000.

Wilensky-Lanford said he was located north of Osh in Kyrgyzstan, about 25 miles from Andijan. Osh was seeing a flood of refugees, as was the city of Jalal-Abad to the north.

Osh residents were calm, but tense, the journalist said.

"People just don't have information about what's happening a short distance away."

The violence began Thursday when a group of citizens angry about the arrest of several prominent business owners stormed the prison where they were being held on charges of religious extremism.

At one point, about 10,000 protesters gathered in the city center to demand the resignation of Uzbek President Islam Karimov and his government -- U.S. allies. The president's office described them as criminals and extremists.

Karimov on Saturday blamed the violence on the Islamic radical group Hizb ut-Tahrir and said their goal is to establish an Islamic state and to destroy the current constitutional system.

Hizb ut-Tahrir has denied the accusations.

"The blame ... has to be with Islam Karimov and his oppressive regime which has tortured and jailed thousands of innocent victims," Imran Wahid, a Hizb ut-Tahrir spokesman in London, told Reuters.

"We want to undermine and overthrow the regime of Islam Karimov by peaceful means," he added. (Full story)

"The blame for the violence should not lie with people who live under oppression," he added.

Speaking at a news conference in the capital Tashkent, Karimov said he never gave an order to shoot as the unrest unfolded. He said 10 police were killed but on the criminal side "many, many more were killed and hundreds wounded."

Interfax quoted Saijakhon Zainabitdinov, head of the Andijan human rights group Appeal, concerning the death toll.

"Government troops opened fire on civilians on Friday evening and hundreds of people died. At dawn today, the dead bodies were taken away on five vehicles -- three Zil dump trucks, one Ural heavy truck and one bus. All of the vehicles were filled with bodies," Zainabitdinov said.

Saturday, some 3,000 people were gathered at the Kyrgyzstan border and were finally allowed to cross over to the Kyrgyz city of Osh, about 25 miles from Andijan, according to a U.N. official.

Jerzy Skuratowicz, U.N. representative in neighboring Kyrgyzstan, told CNN that more than 500 people had also crossed the border into Kygyzstan's Jalal-Abad area to the north.

Among them, he said, were relatives of those "who took part in the events in Uzbekistan."

Censorship during protests

Journalist watchdog group Reporters Without Borders has expressed concern over the expulsion of journalists from Andijan.

"When the authorities keep journalists away from a conflict zone it is most often to hide abuses committed there. We are very concerned and urge President Islam Karimov to allow our colleagues to cover these events," the group said.

It reported that CNN, NTV and BBC TV were cut and Russian and Uzbek Web sites blocked Friday during the bloody confrontations, but that state TV and the national news agency continued to provide reports.

International reaction

Among those expressing deep concern Saturday was Russian President Vladimir Putin, who said the situation posed a "threat to the stability of Central Asia," according to the Kremlin press office.

The instability in Uzbekistan follows the collapse and ouster of Askar Akayev's government in neighboring Kyrgyzstan during protests in March.

The U.S. Embassy in Tashkent said Saturday that "American citizens in Andijan are encouraged to stay off the streets" and to contact the embassy directly or register via its Web site.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher addressed the situation, "We've been very clear about the human rights situation there, been very factual about it, but unfortunately the facts are not pretty."

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw criticized anti-democratic conditions in the country Saturday and urged restraint on both sides.

He pointed out that as the UK approaches its presidency of the European Union, it will use the collective weight of that body to urge the Uzbek government to deal with what he called "patent failings in respect of human and civil rights."

Also monitoring the situation is the Tashkent office of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

CNN's Mike Yardley contributed to this report.

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