MOSCOW — Uzbek authorities pressed forward Monday with arrests of people suspected of involvement in clashes and demonstrations in the eastern city of Andijon last week, as the government sought to deflect criticism of its deadly crackdown on protesters.
"At least 70 organizers of the riots in Andijon" have been detained, the Russian news agency Interfax reported, paraphrasing remarks made by Interior Minister Zakir Almatov to officials from Andijon who were visiting the capital, Tashkent.
Andrei Babitsky, a Russian reporter for U.S.-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, said in a telephone interview from Andijon that a local human rights activist told him that about 1,500 people had been detained. They were being held at the regional office of the national police and at the city police headquarters, with many kept outdoors behind the building, he said.
Human rights activists and others have put the death toll from Friday's clashes between demonstrators and police at 300 to 500. Some people died in predawn assaults by armed fighters who freed prison inmates, including 23 prominent local businessmen who were being tried for alleged involvement in a fundamentalist Islamic group, which is illegal in Uzbekistan.
But most victims died later in the day when troops fired on thousands of protesters, unarmed civilians as well as militants carrying weapons, witnesses said.
Meanwhile, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called for political reform in the Central Asian state, led by President Islam A. Karimov, an important U.S. ally.
"We have been encouraging the Karimov government to make reforms, to make the system more open, to make it possible for people to have a political life," Rice told reporters as she flew home after a trip to Iraq. "And this is a country that needs, in a sense, pressure valves that come from a more open political system."
In Washington, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said at a news conference, "I think you have seen in our human rights report and elsewhere, we felt that the tag of 'Islamic extremist' has been used too broadly by the [Uzbek] government, and that there needs to be more respect for people who want to peacefully exercise their religion.
"On the other hand," he added, "no one can deny that Uzbekistan has faced a problem of terrorism by real extremists who are violent, who are trying to overthrow the government and kill people, and those people need to be dealt with as well."
In Uzbekistan, a search for suspected militants was underway in the east along the border with Kyrgyzstan, Interfax reported.
"Checkpoints have been set up and ID checks are being carried out along all the roads within a radius of 30 to 40 km [about 20 to 25 miles] around Andijon," said a military official quoted by Interfax. "Local residents have turned in several submachine guns that were abandoned by some of the fleeing insurgents."
Hundreds of people have reportedly been leaving Andijon and attempting to cross into Kyrgyzstan. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees confirmed that 560 Uzbeks arrived Saturday in Suzac, on the Kyrgyz side of the border.
"The majority of the new arrivals on Kyrgyz soil are men, among them are 18 wounded," UNHCR said in a statement. "More people are reported still on the Uzbekistan side of the border, wanting to cross into Kyrgyzstan.... UNHCR is sending humanitarian supplies."
The Uzbek government has sought to portray the clashes in Andijon as between government forces and criminals and Islamic militants, not civilian protesters.
Yakov Ryzhak in The Times' Moscow Bureau contributed to this report. Reuters was also used in compiling it.