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Reports Point to High Toll from Uzbek Unrest

JACKI LYDEN, host:

And now to Uzbekistan, the latest former Soviet republic in turmoil. The country is an ally of the United States in the war against terrorism and has provided a base for American operations in neighboring Afghanistan. Yesterday, Uzbek security forces opened fire on anti-government protesters following a siege of government buildings and the prison break in the eastern town of Andijan. Some reports put the death toll in the hundreds. To get a sense of what might behind the unrest, we've turned to Martha Brill Olcott. She's an expert on central Asia with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. She's traveled to the region for years and returned from Uzbekistan just a few weeks ago.

Thanks for being with us.

Ms. MARTHA BRILL OLCOTT (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace): Thank you.

LYDEN: What sparked this violence?

Ms. OLCOTT: They've been growing peaceful protests against the government in the town of Andijan for the last few months because 23 local businessmen were being tried for various anti-state activities, with long prison sentences awaiting them if they were convicted. But the other night, a group of people liberated the prison and let out about 2,000 prisoners. At that point in time, the government seems to have lost control of the situation in the city temporarily as demonstrators took several government buildings.

LYDEN: Now the president of Uzbekistan, Islom Karimov, spoke out about this violence yesterday. He didn't say a great deal, but he did blame it on Islamic extremists. Are these really extremists?

Ms. OLCOTT: The businessmen who were arrested, we have no way of knowing whether they financially supported these extremist groups as they've been accused of doing, but when tens of thousands of people took to the streets, what happened was popular displeasure over social economic conditions, which have not improved in recent years, really took hold. I mean, the kinds of protests we're seeing in Uzbekistan had very little actually to do with Islamists. It really had to do with the sense of many ordinary Uzbeks that President Karimov and his regime have outlived their time.

LYDEN: Now you were just there. Give us a picture of what this place is like.

Ms. OLCOTT: We're talking about a place that's been stagnant for recent years. It's a very densely populated area. It's an area that looks like the Middle East. It is a dictatorship that people sense is decaying.

LYDEN: And what about the government? I mean, how secure is the government of President Islom Karimov?

Ms. OLCOTT: This is not a weak regime. It's a regime that's crumbling within, but as it crumbles from within, it still has the best security forces in the region. It is capable of using force to put down unrest in one city or even two cities simultaneously, but it's not a regime that's capable of putting down unrest across all of Uzbekistan.

LYDEN: Do you think the Uzbeks are sort of taking a look at what's going on elsewhere?

Ms. OLCOTT: I think that we've seen a kind of domino effect. I mean, I think we've seen developments in one country, a country like Georgia, influence developments in Ukraine. Then Ukraine had an impact on Kyrgyzstan and Kyrgyzstan I think certainly has had an impact on what's happening in Andijan.

LYDEN: What happens if the Karimov government should collapse?

Ms. OLCOTT: There is a real risk that there would be civil war and that, I think, would be something that is very dangerous for the region. A civil war in a country of 25 million people with borders on five other states would be a terrible event from the point of view of the US vis-a-vis its policy in Afghanistan. It would be very risky, given US energy interests in Kazakhstan, and, of course, from the point of view of maintaining bases in the region.

LYDEN: Martha Brill Olcott is the central Asia expert with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Thanks very much...

Ms. OLCOTT: Thank you.

LYDEN: ...for talking with us today.

Ms. OLCOTT: Thank you.

LYDEN: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.