MOSCOW — Uzbek troops opened fire Friday on thousands of protesters in the eastern city of Andijon during a day of clashes that began with armed fighters storming a prison to release inmates being held on charges of Islamic extremism.
Reports from Andijon indicated that at least several dozen people, and perhaps many more, were killed in the late-afternoon crackdown.
Lutfullo Shamsutdinov, an Uzbek human rights activist, was caught up in what he called an ambush of a group of protesters by soldiers and police. He said he saw about 200 people on the ground who appeared to be dead. Many in that group had been headed toward a military base to get weapons, he said.
The government of Uzbekistan issued no immediate statement about casualties in Andijon. It had announced that nine people were killed in predawn clashes, during which fighters freed an estimated 2,000 to 4,000 prison inmates.
Those freed included 23 prominent local businessmen who had set up a Muslim charity organization. They were on trial on charges of establishing a criminal organization and of religious extremism, a punishable offense in Uzbekistan. The men have denied the charges. Protests over their trial triggered the wave of unrest.
In recent years, the government of President Islam A. Karimov has arrested thousands of alleged Islamic radicals. It defends the actions as part of a battle against terrorism aimed at preserving Uzbekistan as a secular society.
Critics, including human rights activists, say authorities have triggered a backlash by brutally suppressing people guilty of nothing more than fundamentalist religious beliefs.
The United States maintains a military base in Uzbekistan that is used to support operations in Afghanistan, and the Bush administration considers this Central Asian country an important ally. Washington has criticized it for rights abuses, although not as strongly as activists think it should.
"All the means by which people can express their beliefs and views peacefully have been restricted by this government," said Allison Gill, director of the Human Rights Watch office in Tashkent, the Uzbek capital, who spoke by telephone while visiting New York.
"So the only thing left is mass unrest or spontaneous uprisings.... The increasing direness of the human rights situation has led to instability."
Through much of Friday, an estimated 25,000 to 50,000 protesters rallied in central Andijon. About midday, they took control of a government building. Among those leading the protest were some of the businessmen who had been freed earlier in the day. Some protesters in the building were armed, and they reportedly took hostages.
The demonstrators' anger not only marked an escalation of tensions over the trial of the business leaders, but appeared to reflect widespread public dissatisfaction over unemployment and poor living conditions.
The shootings began when an armored personnel carrier and two truckloads of soldiers reached the square, Associated Press reported.
"Screaming men, women and children were cowering on the ground as a hail of bullets tore through," AP reporter Bagila Bukharbayeva wrote in a first-person account of the scene.
"I was on the ground next to a building across the square from the soldiers," she wrote. "When I raised my head, I saw the body of a teenage boy a few yards away, face down, a wound in his temple. I ran to a safer place, inside a closed school courtyard, and from then on I could only picture the ensuing carnage from the sound of heavy gunfire and the screams of wounded and petrified protesters."
This morning, AP quoted witnesses as saying that soldiers had blocked friends and relatives from collecting bodies and that troops later loaded corpses into trucks and a bus. An AP correspondent reported seeing 23 bodies lying in the street.
Saidjahon Zainabitdinov, chairman of Appeal, an Andijon-based human rights organization, said in a telephone interview Friday evening that he thought many of the protest leaders had been killed.
"I have a strong impression that it has become impossible to reach any opposition members in Andijon on the phone already, simply because none of these people are alive anymore," he said.
"Everything happened so quickly and unexpectedly -- the storming operation was conducted with lightning speed and was very brutal," Zainabitdinov said. "It is very likely that the organizers of this morning's rally and many of their supporters are dead. Only a miracle could have helped those barricaded inside the building survive."
Hospital officials in Andijon said dozens of bodies had been brought in, BBC reported.
Both the Uzbek Interior Ministry and the presidential press office, reached by telephone, declined to comment.
The demonstrators represented a broad cross-section of society. A government statement broadcast on state television before the protest was broken up said that "the militants are sheltering behind women, children and hostages. They will not compromise with the authorities."