The security forces detained 516 people during the protests that broke out over plans to limit the autonomy of Karakalpakstan, but now many of them have been released, the press service of the National Guard said at a briefing.
On Saturday, President Shavkat Mirziyoyev abandoned plans to amend the articles of the constitution regarding Karakalpakstan’s sovereignty and its right to secede. He also declared a month-long state of emergency in the northwestern province.
Protesters marched through the provincial capital of Nukus last Friday and attempted to take over local government buildings, according to official reports.
According to the Prosecutor General’s Office, 18 people died “from severe injuries” received during the clashes. The Russian news agency RIA, citing the head of the National Guard, reported that the number of victims was 14 civilians and four law enforcement officers.
Two exiled opposition politicians who have been in contact with local residents told Reuters they believe the real figure is much higher. It was not possible to independently establish the number of deaths.
Karakalpakstan, located on the shores of the Aral Sea, has been the site of an environmental disaster for decades, and is home to the Karakalpaks, an ethnic minority whose language is distinct from Uzbek, although they are related.
“The Karakalpaks are not Uzbeks… They have their own traditions, culture and laws,” Aman Sagidullayev, the Norwegian-based leader of the pro-independence party Alga Karakalpakstan, told Reuters, accusing the government of conducting a “punitive operation.”
A group of opposition politicians and activists who call themselves the government of Karakalpakstan in exile published an appeal to Mirziyoyev.
They called for the release of arrested demonstrators, the dissolution of the government of Karakalpakstan and the holding of new elections, as well as a review of law enforcement practices, including “unjustified and disproportionate use of force that resulted in loss of life, torture and arbitrary detention.”
They complained of discrimination against their language and “hushing up and distortion” of the region’s history.
Russia, with which former Soviet Uzbekistan has close ties, said the issue was an internal matter for Uzbekistan. The Russian Foreign Ministry said they were confident that the authorities would be able to normalize the situation, and said that issues should be resolved by “legal means” and not riots.
The European Union has called for “an open and independent investigation into the violent events in Karakalpakstan.”
Mirziyoyev’s office said he had discussed the issue with EU Council President Charles Michel and that the riots were provoked by “criminal elements.”
Exiled Uzbek opposition politician Pulat Akhunov told Reuters that a state of emergency curfew and increased security measures appeared to have stabilized the situation, but the risk of inter-ethnic clashes remained.
It is estimated that there are about 700,000 Karakalpaks among Uzbekistan’s 34 million people, most of whom live in the autonomous republic. Geographical and linguistic proximity forces many to look for work, and sometimes move to neighboring Kazakhstan.
In 2005, Uzbek security forces crushed armed protests in the city of Andijan, with 173 people killed, according to official figures. The government at the time blamed the crisis in Andijan, on the opposite eastern side of Uzbekistan, on Islamist extremists.