The taking of Korasuv, a town of 20,000 inhabitants in eastern Uzbekistan, threw up a new challenge to the government on Wednesday as it tried to prove to sceptical diplomats that its troops didn't fire on innocent civilians in nearby Andijan.

"We will be building an Islamic state here in accordance with the Quran," rebel leader Bakhtiyor Rakhimov said. "People are tired of slavery."

The government of President Islam Karimov shrugged off Rakhimov's claims as "nonsense", but the rebel leader said his followers are ready to fight any government troops that come to crush the rebellion.

The rebels claim to control 5000 followers, and there was no sign of Uzbek officials in Korasuv on Wednesday, which they fled after rioters attacked police and government offices on Saturday.

Political opening

Karimov's government has long feared that any social unrest could be used by Muslim groups to promote their own goals.

And the uprising in the nearby town of Andijan that set off the violence on Friday, which was focused on social and economic demands, may have provided the opening Muslim activists have craved.

The government says 169 died in
Andijan in Friday's violence

"While one cannot call Uzbekistan an Islamic country and other sources of the conflict in Uzbekistan are social and clan-based, Islam as a very strong ideology, a strong factor, will be ready to fill the ideological voids created by the regime of Islam Karimov," Russian analyst Stanislav Belkovsky said.

"So I consider that in the coming two-three years, an Islamic revolution and the Islamisation of Uzbekistan is unavoidable. Of course this will be accompanied by bloodshed."

Karimov's government has blamed the unrest on "terrorists" and has denied that troops fired on civilians, although an AP reporter saw troops opening fire on protesters in Andijan on Friday.

The government cites 169 dead in Andijan, but opposition activists say more than 700 were killed - more than 500 in Andijan and about 200 in Pakhtabad - most of them civilians.

Interior Minister Zakir Almatov has dismissed allegations of a crackdown by troops in Pakhtabad.

Judging by Friday's shooting, the government's first response was to crush the Andijan uprising before it could spread.

Second hotspot

The emergence of a second hotspot in Korasuv, 30km to the southeast on the border with Kyrgyzstan, coincided with an intense international focus on Uzbekistan - and that may be staying Karimov's hand.

Uzbek officials took foreign diplomats and journalists on a lightning-quick tour of Andijan on Wednesday, showing them a prison and the local administration building and arranging
meetings with local officials, as the top UN human-rights official called for an independent investigation.

The people of Andijan were kept blocks away from the delegation, leaving little chance for an objective assessment.

"I consider that in the coming two-three years, an Islamic revolution and the Islamisation of Uzbekistan is unavoidable. Of course this will be accompanied by bloodshed"

Stanislav Belkovsky,
Russian analyst

"We blocked a few roads for your security," Almatov told the delegation as it was taken along streets lined with cordons of troops and police.

Inside the gutted administration building, a local official pointed at signs of looting and described how insurgents had allegedly executed local officials whom they took hostage and used civilians as a shield as they tried to flee.

Almatov ignored a reporter's request to visit to a school where a prominent local doctor had said 500 bodies were stored following the violence.

After three hours in Andijan, the delegation was flown back to the capital, Tashkent. Some diplomats complained the trip was too short and there was no opportunity to speak to Andijan residents.

"I think we need to be realistic about how much can be achieved in a whistle-stop tour of ambassadors in a large delegation format over such a short period," British Ambassador David Moran said.

Sharia law

It was equally difficult to assess just how great a force Rakhimov and his Islamic followers in Korasuv represent.

Rakhimov's men, uniformly clad in traditional V-necked white shirts and embroidered skull cups, could be seen around the town, although no weapons were visible.

Islam Karimov says his troops
have only killed 'terrorists'

"All decisions will be taken by people at a mosque. There will be rule of Sharia law," Rakhimov said. "Thieves and other criminals will be tried by the people themselves."

Among the groups that promote Islamism, the one that probably has the most followers in formerly Soviet Central Asia is the Hizb-ut-Tahrir party, which Uzbek authorities accuse of inspiring attacks in Tashkent and the central city of Bukhara last year that killed more than 50.

Hizb-ut-Tahrir, which says it rejects violence, denied responsibility.

Rakhimov said he and his supporters did not belong to any Islamic organisation. "We are just people," he said. "We just follow the Quran."

Ikbol Mirsaitov, a Kyrgyz expert on Islam, speculated that some of the activists may have been people who had escaped the prison in Andijan, because they had very short beards - indicating they had grown them just in the past few days.

Hizb ut Tahrir

Asked if he was afraid government soldiers would try to regain control of Korasuv by force, as they did in Andijan, Rakhimov said: "They came here today, a few military people. I turned them back."

"We will be building an Islamic state here in accordance with the Quran. People are tired of slavery"

Bakhtiyor Rakhimov,
Korasuv rebel leader

"Soldiers and police are also sons of this people," he said. "We don't have weapons, but if they come and attack us we will fight even with knives."

Badanboyev, the rebel leader's aide, said people from other towns in the Fergana Valley, including the Kyrgyz city of Osh, had joined them.

Sadyk Kamalitdin, another Kyrgyz expert on Islam, said the group probably included some Hizb-ut-Tahrir members, protesters who had fled Andijan, and rank-and-file Muslims, and their plans for an Islamic state would remain 'a dream".

"It won't work. The Uzbek authorities will take action against them in two or three days or in a week," he predicted.