TASHKENT: The president of Uzbekistan acknowledged on Sunday “victims” during anti-government demonstrations in the autonomous republic of Karakalpakhstan, in the northwest of this Central Asian country, where all opposition is repressed.
“Unfortunately, there are casualties between civilians and police,” said Chavkat Mirzioev, quoted by his press service, during a speech from Karakalpakstan.
He did not specify the number of victims, nor did he indicate whether they were dead or injured, accusing the organizers of the demonstrations of “hiding behind slogans” and of trying to “take control of official local government buildings”.
“Several groups tried to take control of the Department of Home Affairs buildings in the city of Nukus – capital of Karakalpakstan, editor’s note – and the Department of the National Guard to obtain weapons,” the president added.
“Taking advantage of the fact that there were more of them, these men attacked police officers, who were beaten and seriously injured,” he said.
Videos of clashes with police show people who appear injured or unconscious, raising fears of a heavy human toll.
An Uzbek representative, Bobur Bekmurodov, denounced footage posted on Twitter showing uniformed men walking down a street covered in red liquid.
“Friends don’t join in these shameful taunts. Check the news. It’s just red colored water. Please let the truth be known!” he tweeted.
“Organizers of the riots” were arrested, police said, without giving further details.
This is the most serious internal crisis faced by the Uzbek president since he came to power in 2016.
Two Nukus residents told AFP that a small group trying to protest Saturday night, for the second night in a row, was dispersed by police.
According to those witnesses who requested anonymity, the police appear to have used tear gas and smoke grenades.
Uzbekistan, a country where the opposition is violently repressed, on Saturday declared a month-long state of emergency in Karakalpakhstan, shaken the day before by a rare anti-government demonstration that prompted President Chavkat Mirzioev to abandon a constitutional amendment plan.
This amendment would have reduced the degree of autonomy of the republic of 2 million people, one of the poorest in the country.
The state of emergency took effect on the same night at midnight and is expected to last until August 2.
Noukous appeared calm on Sunday and was approached by police, witnesses told AFP.
Bordering Afghanistan, Uzbekistan is located in a strategic region where Russia and China wield strong influence.
Came to power in 2016 with the death of his predecessor, the ruthless Islam Karimov, Chavkat Mirzioev carried out major economic and social reforms.
Re-elected last year, he is now accused of taking a new authoritarian course in the country.
With the revision of the proposed Constitution, the presidential term would go from five to seven years, in favor of the current head of state.
For the majority of the population, the main source of concern is not the human rights situation, but the increasingly difficult economic context.
The Covid-19 pandemic halted strong GDP growth, plunging tourism into the abyss. This fueled popular discontent, due to the sharp rise in unemployment and the cost of living.
In 2005, hundreds of Uzbek civilians were killed in the city of Andijan (east), during the repression of a protest movement.