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Soviet Premier Visits Area Beset by 'Gangs of Bandits'

June 13, 1989|MASHA HAMILTON | Times Staff Writer

MOSCOW — Premier Nikolai I. Ryzhkov made an emergency trip Monday to the Central Asian republic of Uzbekistan, where rioting initially sparked by ethnic disputes now appears, according to Pravda, to have snowballed into a rampage by a Soviet criminal underworld.

"Gangs of bandits, not even masquerading any longer under the guise of 'nationalistic zealots,' are continuing to maraud, rob, burn and murder, not caring which nation's property they pillage," the Communist Party daily newspaper reported.

Ethnic clashes continued, meanwhile, between native Uzbekis and Meskhetians, a Turkish minority, with mobs of Uzbekis trying to attack ethnic Turks who fled to refugee camps in the neighboring republic of Tadzhikistan, Tass said. The government decided Monday to airlift most of the republic's Turks to the Russian Republic, Soviet television said.

Rioters have torched hundreds of homes and public buildings in the last 10 days of rioting, leaving at least 88 people dead, official media reported Monday. Additional victims are expected to be discovered in the rubble of homes gutted by fire where rescuers have not yet searched. Other sources have said the death toll is at least 100.

The underworld in Uzbekistan, an impoverished cotton-growing republic known as the organized crime capital of the Soviet Union, may have been urged to take advantage of the ethnic unrest by "anti- perestroika forces"--political opponents to President Mikhail S. Gorbachev, Pravda reported, using the Russian word for Gorbachev's efforts to reform Soviet society.

It is likely that Gorbachev has political enemies in Uzbekistan. He targeted high-ranking officials there in a corruption crackdown last year. Among those prosecuted was the son-in-law of former Soviet leader Leonid I. Brezhnev, Yuri M. Churbanov, who was convicted in December for taking bribes.

There also is a traditional resentment of Moscow in the republic. The growth of a widespread network of corrupt officials, sometimes called the "cotton Mafia," apparently began with Uzbek party leaders falsifying cotton records to satisfy quotas viewed by Uzbekis as impossibly high.

Ryzhkov was accompanied to the republic by former KGB chief Viktor M. Chebrikov, a fellow Politburo member who currently heads a commission on legal affairs.

They visited some ethnic Turks who were taken from their homes to a guarded refugee camp after clashes broke out with the native Uzbekis, and they spoke to the director of a collective farm, Soviet television reported.

The purpose of their trip, Tass news agency said, is "to consider questions of normalizing the situation in the Fergana Valley region," the center of the unrest about 1,500 miles southeast of Moscow.

The Kremlin decision to send Ryzhkov and Chebrikov was a clear sign that the approximately 9,000 Soviet soldiers in the republic have been unable to restore order.

"It will take much more work to restore calm," Col. V. Chersalov, a military commander sent to the region, told the government's daily newspaper, Izvestia.

The official Tass agency reported Monday that the unrest has spread from the Fergana Valley region to the nearby Namangan region, where about 2,000 people took part in "disorders" overnight.

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