Violent clashes broke out again on Saturday morning as Uzbek troops sought to suppress armed groups, who the previous day had freed prisoners in the country's fourth-largest city of 350,000.

 

"They are now dispersed and we are hunting them down," an Uzbek soldier said, as troops fired shells from armoured vehicles and used automatic weapons against the armed groups.

 

Between 20 and 30 bodies of men and young men could be seen on Saturday in a street near the centre of Andijan following the clashes.

 

The dead, who were not in military uniform, appeared to have been shot. They were lying near a cinema, about one kilometre from the regional administration building, site of a demonstration on Friday that was broken up by soldiers firing above and into the crowd.

 

Local residents said they had seen soldiers fire on the group from armoured personnel carriers (APCs) as the men returned from the demonstration. This could not be immediately confirmed.

 

"Soldiers started shooting from an APC. They finished off people who were lying on the ground"

Azim Karimov

Azim Karimov, 53, said he had been among the group that came under fire and was himself wounded in the legs.

 

"Soldiers started shooting from an APC. They finished off people who were lying on the ground," he said.

 

A doctor at Andijan's central hospital said more than 50 people have been killed in the violence.

 

"There are at least 50 dead," the doctor said. He said 96 people were being treated for wounds at the hospital including armed men and soldiers, while 15 were being treated at another hospital.

 

Violence continues

 

The violence began late on Thursday after a military garrison was raided for its weapons.

 

The armed men, believed to number at least 60 to 100, then stormed a prison early on Friday to free 23 men on trial for what the government called "Islamic extremism".

 

Thousands of people had been protesting in previous days against the trial, which they said was based on charges trumped up by President Islam Karimov's hardline government.

 

Security forces counter-attacked later on Friday, hunting the men and firing on civilians demonstrating against Karimov's government, witnesses said.

 

The authorities said security forces had regained control of a local administration building seized by protesters, and a high-ranking Uzbek official said hostages taken by the demonstrators to use as human shields had been freed.

 

Andijan is near the border of Kyrgyzstan in the densely populated and impoverished Ferghana valley.