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Uzbek forces arrest leader of rebels in border town

He had declared Islamic state plan

KORASUV, Uzbekistan -- Breaking through a wooden gate and firing only a single warning shot, Uzbek forces yesterday captured a rebel leader who had proclaimed plans for an Islamic state in this border town.

The arrest and takeover of the town of 20,000 quelled the last open bastion of resistance to the US-allied government in the volatile Fergana Valley.

General John Abizaid, head of the US Central Command, said the US military has scaled back its operations from Uzbekistan since the violence broke out a week ago. American forces operate out of an air base in the country in support of operations in Afghanistan.

''We have decided to make sure that we're cautious about how we're operating," the general told a small group of reporters Wednesday, according to a Pentagon transcript. He said the change was not meant to be a message to Uzbekistan's government.

The crackdown in Korasuv came as the Uzbek Foreign Ministry condemned Kyrgyzstan for letting more than 500 Uzbeks fleeing the violence cross the border, and said weak border controls had led to ''serious riots" and actions staged by religious groups.

''The situation may spin out of control if they [Kyrgyz border authorities] continue to take unnecessary steps," the ministry said in a note given to the Kyrgyz ambassador and made public yesterday.

Followers of Bakhtiyor Rakhimov, a farmer turned rebel leader, had claimed control of Korasuv on Saturday during the chaos that followed the uprising 20 miles away in the city of Andijan, where witnesses said Uzbek forces killed hundreds of protesters -- most of whom were complaining about economic conditions.

President Islam Karimov said yesterday he opposes an international investigation into the worst violence since Uzbekistan's independence in 1991, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan said after speaking with Karimov on the phone.

''He said he had the situation under control and was taking every measure to bring those responsibe to account and didn't need an international team to establish the facts," Annan said.

The government says 169 people died in Andijan, but opposition activists say more than 700 were killed -- more than 500 in Andijan and about 200 in nearby Pakhtabad -- most of them civilians. Karimov's government has denied that troops fired at civilians, and Karimov blamed Islamic militants for the unrest.

Korasuv residents rioted Saturday and forced authorities to open the border to Kyrgyzstan. Rakhimov claimed to have 5,000 supporters in the town, who he said were prepared to defend themselves with knives.

But there was apparently no resistance when government forces moved in before sunrise yesterday. At Rakhimov's two-story brick home on the edge of town, some 30 special forces broke down the gate, said his sister, Yulduz Rakhimova, displaying the wooden shards.

The soldiers went to Rakhimov's room and ordered him to get dressed, and then proceeded to hit him, Rakhimova said.

''They beat him with rifle butts on the head and back and kicked him," she said, adding that Rakhimov was unarmed.

They arrested about 20 people, also including Rakhimov's 14-year-old son and three men who were unarmed guards at the home, Rakhimova said.

Later yesterday, helicopter gunships circled the gray skies above Korasuv while police roamed the streets wearing military-style helmets and bulletproof vests. A small knot of soldiers guarded the local administration building on the main square.

Residents said they had been happy during their five days of self-rule, during which they rebuilt a bridge to Kyrgyzstan that the Uzbek government had destroyed a couple of years ago -- cutting them off from the thriving bazaar with cheap goods in their Kyrgyz sister city of Kara-suu.

Uzbek forces kept the bridge open yesterday but reestablished border controls.

Rakhimov had said on Wednesday that he would be ''building an Islamic state here in accordance with the Koran."

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