The National Guard press office told a briefing that security forces detained 516 people during the protests that sabotaged plans to curtail Karakalpakstan’s autonomy, but have now released many of them.
On Saturday, President Shaukat Mirziyoyev abandoned plans to amend articles of 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 from the provincial capital Nukus last Friday and tried to seize local government buildings.
According to the prosecutor general’s office, 18 people died from “serious wounds” during the conflict. Russia’s RIA news agency quoted the head of the National Guard as saying that 14 civilians and four law enforcement officers were among the dead.
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 ascertain the death toll.
Karakalpakstan – an environmental disaster site located for decades on the coast of the Aral Sea – is home to Karakalpaks, an ethnic minority group whose language is distinct from Uzbek, though related.
“Karkalpaks are not Uzbeks … they have their own traditions, culture and laws,” Aman Sagidulyev, Norway-based leader of the pro-independence Alga Karakalpakstan party, told Reuters, accusing the government of running a “punitive campaign”.
A group of opposition politicians and activists, who call themselves the Government of Karakalpakstan in exile, published an appeal to Mirziyoyev.
He called for the release of arrested protesters, the dissolution of the Karakalpak government, and new elections, and a review of the actions of law enforcement agencies, including “inappropriate and disproportionate use of force for human victims, torture and arbitrarily detained”. .
They complained of discrimination against their language and the “silence and distortion” of the region’s history.
Russia, with which former Soviet Uzbekistan has close ties, said the matter was Uzbekistan’s domestic matter. The Russian Foreign Ministry said it was confident that the authorities there would be able to normalize the situation, adding that the issues should be resolved by “legal means” rather than rioting.
The European Union called for “an open and independent investigation into the violent incidents in Karkalpakstan”.
Mirziyoyev’s office said he had discussed the matter with EU Council President Charles Michel and that the unrest was instigated by “criminal elements”.
Pulat Ahunov, an exiled Uzbek opposition politician, told Reuters that curfews and tight security imposed for the duration of the emergency had stabilized the situation, but there was still a threat of ethnic conflict.
There are an estimated 700,000 Karakalpaks out of Uzbekistan’s 34 million people, most of them in the Autonomous Republic. Geographical and linguistic proximity has prompted many to seek work and sometimes to relocate to neighboring Kazakhstan.
According to official reports, in 2005, Uzbek security forces crushed armed protests in the city of Andijan, killing 173 people. The government at that time blamed the crisis in Andijan, unlike the eastern part of Uzbekistan – on Islamic extremists.