ANDIJAN, Uzbekistan (AP) – Soldiers loyal to Uzbekistan’s authoritarian leader, a U.S. ally, opened fire on thousands of demonstrators Friday to put down an uprising that began when armed men freed 2,000 inmates from prison, including suspects on trial for alleged Islamic extremism.

The death toll from a day of violence in the eastern Uzbek city was not known. The government said nine died before the shootings in the square but gave no overall figure. Witnesses said dozens may have been killed by the troops, who rode into the square in a truck behind an armored personnel carrier as helicopters hovered overhead.

Gunfire died down overnight, then shots were heard briefly in central Andijan early today; still, the streets appeared largely quiet with most of the city’s 350,000 people in their homes.

Authorities said security forces had regained control of the city administration building seized earlier in the day by armed protesters.

Hostages taken by the demonstrators as human shields at the building were released, a high-ranking Uzbek official said on condition he not be named.

The prison raid and the soldiers’ fusillades were in sharp contrast to the largely peaceful uprisings that sparked regime changes in the former Soviet republics of Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan in the past 18 months. President Islam Karimov is regarded as one of the harshest leaders in the former Soviet Union and apparently favors quick and decisive action against any threats to his regime.

Uzbekistan is a key Washington ally in the war on terrorism and hosts a U.S. air base to support military operations in neighboring Afghanistan following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. But it also is frequently denounced by human rights groups and Western governments for torture and repression of opposition.

The White House urged restraint by the government and the demonstrators.

“The people of Uzbekistan want to see a more representative and democratic government. But that should come through peaceful means not through violence, and that’s what our message is,” White House spokesman Scott McClellan said. “We have had concerns about human rights in Uzbekistan, but we are concerned about the outbreak of violence, particularly by some members of a terrorist organization that were freed from prison.”

The focus of the jailbreak were 23 men on trial on charges of being members of a group allied with the outlawed radical Islamic party Hizb-ut-Tahrir, which seeks to create a worldwide Islamic state and has been forced underground throughout most of Central Asia and Russia.

Supporters of the 23 men maintain they were victims of religious repression by Karimov’s secular government.

The 23 are members of Akramia – a group named for their founder, Akram Yuldashev, an Islamic dissident sentenced in 1999 to 17 years in prison for allegedly urging the overthrow of Karimov in a pamphlet. He has proclaimed his innocence.

Akramis are considered the backbone of Andijan’s small business community, running a medical clinic and pharmacy, as well as working as furniture craftsmen, and providing employment to thousands in the impoverished Fergana Valley, where Islamist sentiment runs high.

Their trial has inspired one of the largest public shows of anger at the government. In recent weeks, Uzbeks have shown increasing willingness to challenge the leadership in protests, apparently bolstered by the March uprising in Kyrgyzstan that drove out President Askar Akayev and similar ones in Ukraine and Georgia.

Before dawn Friday, armed supporters of the defendants raided the jail in Andijan where the men were being held, freeing all 23 as well as about 2,000 other prisoners. A rights activist, Saidjakhon Zainabiddinov, said late Friday that some of those freed were surrendering to avoid retaliation.

During the day, thousands of people swarmed into the streets of Uzbekistan’s fourth-largest city, clashing with police and seizing the administration building. Nine people were killed in those clashes and 34 wounded, the government said, although a protest leader, Kabuljon Parpiyev, told The Associated Press the death toll could be as high as 50.

Cars were set ablaze and a nearby theaters were burning. Two bodies laid splayed near the square – one with a stomach wound, another burned. Several military helicopters circled overhead.

“We want to be allowed to work and do our business without hindrance,” the 42-year-old Parpiyev told AP.

One of the 23 defendants, Abduvosid Egomov, was holed up in the local government compound.

“We are not going to overthrow the government. We demand economic freedom,” Egomov told AP. “We are ready to die instead of living as we are living now. The Uzbek people have been reduced to living like dirt.”

Parpiyev said Interior Minister Zakir Almatov called him Friday morning and heard the protesters’ demands. He initially agreed to negotiations but said later that the offer of talks was off, the protest organizer said.

“He said, ‘We don’t care if 200, 300 or 400 people die. We have force and we will chuck you out of there anyway,”‘ Parpiyev quoted Almatov as saying.

In the afternoon, about 4,000 protesters massed in the central square and set up a podium under a monument to Babur, an Uzbek prince, where speakers complained of unemployment and living in poverty.

For some, it was the first time in their lives they were able to speak out in public.

Protest organizers, some with Kalashnikov automatic rifles slung across their chests, took turns addressing the crowd through a microphone.

“You have a chance now to say what you’ve wanted to speak openly about all these years,” one thin, slight speaker wearing a white Muslim cap urged the crowd. “Come on and talk.”

But shortly before dusk, the soldiers moved in and opened fire, sending the terrified demonstrators fleeing. One man wailed, “Oh, my son! He’s dead!”

A witness told The Associated Press he had seen a group of about 100 protesters mowed down by gunfire as they headed to the square. The city’s hospital was cordoned off and officials could not be reached for casualty figures.

Karimov and other officials flew to Andijan during the day but returned to the capital of Tashkent on Friday night.

The government blocked foreign news reports for its domestic audience.

Uzbek authorities blame the banned party Hizb-ut-Tahrir for inspiring deadly attacks and bombings last year that killed more than 50 people in Uzbekistan. Hizb-ut-Tahrir says it disavows violence and has denied responsibility.

A statement from Hizb-ut-Tahrir’s office in London said “the blame for today’s unrest lies squarely with the desperate Karimov regime whose repression of Uzbekistan’s Muslims knows no bounds or limits.”

The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which is linked to al-Qaida and the Taliban, also fought for establishment of an Islamic state in the Fergana Valley since the 1990s. Andijan is in the Fergana Valley, and there are concerns that the region could be a flashpoint for destabilizing wide swaths of ex-Soviet Central Asia.

Uzbekistan, a nation of 26 million people, is the world’s third-largest exporter of cotton. The largely arid nation, which depends heavily on irrigation, also has some gold and oil reserves.

AP-ES-05-13-05 2245EDT

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