Uzbekistan’s president said there have been casualties among civilians and law enforcement personnel after rare public protests in the country’s autonomous northwestern Karakalpakstan province, which has seen significant unrest over a planned constitutional reform.
In a statement posted online on Sunday, President Shavkat Mirziyoyev said rioters had carried out “destructive actions” in the city of Nukus, throwing stones, starting fires and attacking police.
“Unfortunately, there are fatalities among civilians and law enforcement officers,” Mirziyoyev said during a speech in Karakalpakstan that was relayed by his press service on Telegram. He did not specify the number and nature of the casualties.
An exiled opposition politician, Pulat Ahunov, told Reuters news agency that, based on contacts with local sources and video evidence, at least five people had been killed. He said there were unconfirmed reports of dozens more dead.
Ahunov said people were unable to move around and obtain more information because of a state of emergency imposed by the authorities.
Karakalpakstan has seen significant internet outages since the draft amendments were published last week, stripping the region of its nominal “sovereign” status and its right to secede from Uzbekistan via popular referendum.
Mirziyoyev has since dropped plans to roll back the province’s autonomy after the demonstrations.
“According to the constitution, it is an autonomous region, it has its own parliament, it has a number of privileges that it’s supposed to enjoy including the opportunity to hold an election and choose to secede from Uzbekistan,” Bruce Pannier, a Prague-based journalist specialising in Central Asia, told Al Jazeera.
The area takes its name from the Karakalpak people, who are well represented in cities such as Nukus, where the protests took place, but now constitute a minority in the western region of two million people.
“In Uzbekistan in general, protests are very rare because security forces have a very strong grip over the country,” Pannier said.