At least 18 people were killed and 243 injured during last week’s unrest in Uzbekistan’s autonomous province of Karakalpakstan, according to the country’s authorities.
The unrest over planned constitutional changes affecting Karakalpakstan’s status poses the most significant challenge yet to President Shavkat Mirziyoyev’s rule since he rose to power from the post of prime minister in 2016, when his long-serving mentor Islam Karimov died.
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Mirziyoyev on Saturday dropped plans to amend articles of the constitution concerning Karakalpakstan’s autonomy and its right to secede, a day after protesters tried to seize local government buildings in the worst bout of violence in nearly 20 years.
The president also declared a monthlong state of emergency in the northwestern province home to Karakalpaks, an ethnic minority group whose language is closer to Kazakh than Uzbek.
“In [the administrative centre] Nukus, 18 people died as a result of serious injuries received during massive disorders,” the Russian news agency Ria Novosti on Monday quoted Abror Mamatov, an official from the state prosecutor’s office, as saying.
Security forces detained 516 people while dispersing the protesters last Friday but have now released many of them, the national guard press office told a briefing.
On Monday, the leader of neighbouring Kazakhstan, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, welcomed Tashkent’s measures, his office said. The Central Asian nation is home to the largest Karakalpak diaspora abroad.
In a statement posted online on Sunday, Mirziyoyev said rioters had carried out “destructive actions” in the city of Nukus, throwing stones, starting fires and attacking police.
Photographs published by news website Kun.uz showed street barricades, burned trucks and a heavy military presence including armoured personnel carriers.
Videos shared on social media showed at least two severely wounded people being carried by their arms and legs. One was bleeding from the abdomen, while the other was screaming.
Uzbekistan is a tightly controlled former Soviet republic. Karakalpakstan has seen significant internet outages since the draft amendments were published last week.
Bruce Pannier, a Prague-based journalist specialising in Central Asia, told Al Jazeera the region “has a number of privileges that it’s supposed to enjoy, including the opportunity to hold an election and choose to secede from Uzbekistan”.
“In Uzbekistan in general, protests are very rare because security forces have a very strong grip over the country,” Pannier said.
Ahunov, chairman of the opposition Berlik party, condemned the use of lethal force.
“The authorities, from the start, should have opted for dialogue and negotiations,” he told Reuters news agency from Sweden.
He said he feared the potential for the situation to escalate into an ethnic conflict between Uzbeks and Karakalpaks.
Authorities have called a public meeting for Tuesday to discuss the situation, he said.