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Death Toll Soars In Uzbekistan

Sporadic shooting continued Monday in an eastern Uzbek city where an uprising sparked a crackdown by security forces that left up to 500 people dead, and a human rights group reported that clashes in another town killed an additional 200.

The spreading unrest in a region bordering Kyrgyzstan - the worst since Uzbekistan gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 - also left 11 people dead in clashes Sunday in a third town and sparked a rampage by residents in a fourth town on Saturday, witnesses said.

The government of President Islam Karimov has denied opening fire on demonstrators as witnesses have claimed, but the authoritarian government has sought to restrict access for reporters in the affected areas.

If the reports of more than 700 deaths since Friday hold true and if Uzbek forces were behind the killing - as most reports indicate - it would be some of the worst cases of bloodshed involving a government's troops and civilian demonstrators since the massacre of protesters in China's Tiananmen Square in 1989.

Uzbekistan, a landlocked Central Asian nation which gained its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, is home to a U.S. military base, shares a border with five countries including Afghanistan, is the world's second largest exporter of cotton and is a large producer of gold and oil.

Saidjahon Zaynabitdinov, head of the local Appeal human rights advocacy group, said on Monday that government troops had killed about 200 demonstrators on Saturday in Pakhtabad, about 18 miles northeast of Andijan.

There was no independent confirmation of his claim.

That fighting would have come a day after some 500 people reportedly were killed in Andijan when government troops put down an uprising by alleged Islamic militants and citizens protesting dire economic conditions.

Andijan remained extremely tense on Monday after gunfire continued throughout the night. Residents said government troops were fighting militants in Bogishonol, an outlying district of the city, but the claim could not officially be confirmed.

Alexei Volosevich, an Andijan correspondent for the Fergana.ru Web site, said witnesses told him that militants fired at police from the attics of apartment buildings near the city prison and that police eventually killed the assailants. There was no word about police casualties.

Troops and armored personnel carriers formed a tight circle around the city center, where the local administration building - at the center of Friday's violence - was on fire late Sunday. Piles of sandbags used as defenses in the fighting dotted the streets.

Men were digging what appeared to be a large common grave at a local cemetery under the watch of many Uzbek security service agents.

"It is sheer genocide against the people," Zaynabitdinov told Associated Press Television News. "The people now are more afraid of government troops than of any so-called militants."

Karimov has blamed Islamic extremists for the violence.

Zaynabitdinov reiterated the protesters' contention that they were not aiming to overthrow the government, but simply wanted to air their grievances.

"The demonstrators did not have any claims to power. It was just an outpouring of people's feelings. People were driven out into the streets," he said.

Prosecutor General's office spokeswoman Svetlana Artikova said Monday that her office had launched a criminal investigation on charges of staging riots in Andijan. She refused to comment on the number of people arrested. No charges have been filed yet.

The violence puts the United States in a difficult position because it relies on Karimov's government for an air base in the country and anti-terrorism support. So far U.S. authorities have only called on both sides to work out their differences peacefully.

In Andijan on Sunday, about 500 bodies were laid out in rows at the city's School No. 15, according to a respected doctor in the town, seeming to corroborate witness accounts of hundreds killed in the fighting. The doctor, who spoke by telephone on condition she not be named, also said about 2,000 people were wounded. The doctor is widely regarded as knowledgeable about local affairs.

In a separate clash in the border town of Teshiktosh on Sunday, eight government soldiers and three civilians were killed and hundreds of Uzbeks fled into neighboring Kyrgyzstan, witnesses said.

Kyrgyz border guards spokeswoman Gulmira Borubayeva said that 150 Uzbek citizens had tried to cross into Kyrgyzstan near the Uzbek village of Ayim late Sunday, but Kyrgyz border guards didn't let them in.

In another border community, Korasuv, an estimated 5,000 people went on a rampage on Saturday and forced authorities to restore a bridge across a river that marks the border with Kyrgyzstan. Local residents saw the government's closing of the bridge more than two years ago as a move to deny them access to the better economy and more open politics of Kyrgyzstan.

"It was a popular uprising. There were no terrorists here, just ordinary people," said Furkat Yuldashev, 32, as he stood with other townspeople near the bridge.

"It's necessary to get this ruler out," said a 75-year-old man named Umarjon-Aka, dressed in a traditional black robe and dark blue hat.

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