Uzbek authorities said on Monday that 18 people were killed and 243 wounded during unrest in Uzbekistan’s autonomous region of Karakalpakstan last week, in the worst wave of violence in the Central Asian country in 17 years.
The National Guard press office said in a press briefing that security forces arrested 516 people during the protests that erupted over plans to limit Karakalpakstan’s independence, but have now released many of them.
On Saturday, President Shavkat Mirziyoyev dropped plans to amend articles in the constitution relating to Karakalpakstan’s sovereignty and its right to secede. He also declared a month-long state of emergency in the Northwest Province.
Official reports said protesters marched in the regional capital Nukus last Friday and tried to seize local government buildings.
According to the Public Prosecutor’s Office, 18 people died “as a result of serious injuries” sustained during the clashes. The RIA news agency quoted the commander of the National Guard as saying that the death toll included 14 civilians and four law enforcement officers.
Two exiled opposition politicians in contact with people on the ground told Reuters they believed the real figure was much higher. It was not possible to independently determine the number of dead.
Karakalpakstan—which on the shores of the Aral Sea has, for decades, been the site of an environmental disaster—is home to the Karakalpak, an ethnic minority group whose language differs from that of the Uzbek, although related to it.
“The Karakalpaks are not Uzbeks… they have their own traditions, culture and law,” Aman Sajidulayev, leader of the Norway-based pro-independence Alga Karakalpakstan party, told Reuters, accusing the government of launching a “punitive operation.”
A group of opposition politicians and activists calling themselves the Karakalpakstan government-in-exile published an appeal to Mirziyoyev.
They called for the release of detained protesters, the dissolution of the Karakalpak government, new elections and a review of the actions of law enforcement agencies, including “the unjustified and disproportionate use of force that has led to human casualties, torture and arbitrary detention.”
They complained of discrimination against their language and of the “silencing and distortion” of the region’s history.
Russia, with which the ex-Soviet Uzbekistan has close ties, said it was a matter of Uzbekistan’s internal affairs. The Russian Foreign Ministry said it was confident that the authorities there would succeed in normalizing the situation, and said the issues should be resolved “by legal means” rather than riots.
The European Union called for an “open and independent investigation into the violent incidents in Karakalpakstan”.
Mirziyoyev’s office said it had discussed the matter with European Union Council President Charles Michel, and that the unrest had been triggered by “criminal elements”.
The exiled Uzbek opposition politician, Bulat Ahonov, told Reuters that the curfew imposed for the duration of the state of emergency and the tightening of security measures appeared to have contributed to stabilizing the situation, but there was still a risk of ethnic clashes erupting.
There are an estimated 700,000 Karakalpaks out of the 34 million people in Uzbekistan, most of them in the autonomous republic. Geographical and linguistic proximity has led many to seek work and sometimes move to neighboring Kazakhstan.
Some observers believe that Tashkent’s misguided attempt to curtail Karakalpakstan’s independence – Mirziyoyev himself criticized local parliament members for not telling him public opposition to it – may have been an attempt to pre-empt any upsurge in separatism over the war in Ukraine.
In 2005, armed protests in the city of Andijan were crushed by Uzbek security forces, where 173 people were killed in clashes, according to official reports. The government at the time blamed the crisis in Andijan – in the opposite eastern part of Uzbekistan – on Islamic extremists.