Foreign officials: Uzbekistan to hold funeral for president

MOSCOW (AP) — A top Kyrgyz diplomat and an Afghan government official say Uzbekistan is holding a funeral for President Islam Karimov on Saturday.

The Russia-based major news agency Interfax on Friday reported and then hastily withdrew a report that the Uzbek government has confirmed Karimov’s death. The agency blamed a technical error.

Russia’s state RIA-Novosti cited an unnamed Uzbek Cabinet official as denying such a statement had been sent.

Uzbek officials have said only that Karimov is gravely ill.

Iran’s president Hassan Rouhani sent a message to Nigmatilla Yuldoshev, identified as the acting president of Uzbekistan, offering condolences over Karimov’s death, Rouhani’s website, reported Friday.

He offered condolence to his (Karimov) family and the government and people of Uzbekistan.The Afghan official told The Associated Press on Friday that President Ashraf Ghani will attend Karimov’s funeral. The Kyrgyz diplomat told the AP the country’s prime minister also had been invited to Karimov’s funeral.

Karimov, 78, hasn’t been seen in public since mid-August, but his government admitted only last weekend that he was ill.

His daughter Lola said he had suffered a brain hemorrhage, and a swarm of unofficial reports have placed him close to death or even dead.

Karimov has run an authoritarian government in the Central Asian nation since 1989, and cultivated no apparent successor.

After several days of silence, the government on Friday issued a statement saying: “Dear compatriots, it is with a heavy heart that we inform you that the health of our president has sharply deteriorated in the past 24 hours to reach a critical state, according to the doctors.”

The uncertainty over Karimov’s health has raised concerns that Uzbekistan could face prolonged infighting among clans over leadership claims, something its Islamic radical movement could exploit. Given the lack of access to the country it’s hard to judge how powerful the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan might be, but the group has over the years been affiliated with the Taliban, al-Qaida and the Islamic State group and has sent fighters abroad.

Under the constitution, if the president dies his duties pass temporarily to the head of the senate until an election can be held within three months. However, the head of the Uzbek senate is regarded as unlikely to seek permanent power and Karimov’s demise is expected to set off a period of jockeying for political influence.

In any case, the passing of the man who harshly cracked down on opposition would not be likely to lead to an immediate relaxation.

Karimov’s death would “mark the end of an era in Uzbekistan, but almost certainly not the pattern of grave human rights abuses. His successor is likely to come from Karimov’s closest circle, where dissenting minds have never been tolerated,” said Denis Krivosheev, deputy director for Europe and Central Asia at Amnesty International.

Uzbekistan celebrated its Independence Day on Thursday, and it was widely assumed that the government would not break any news until after the festivities. On Friday, indications mounted that the country was preparing for a funeral.

Photographs posted Friday by the respected Central Asian news website showed what appeared to be undertakers in Karimov’s hometown of Samarkand working on a cemetery plot in the graveyard where Karimov’s family is buried.

The Samarkand airport announced it would be closed to all flights except specially approved aircraft on Saturday, according to the website of the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration.

In Ankara, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim offered his condolences to the Uzbek people for Karimov’s death, though it was not clear how he got the news.

Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the Kremlin had no confirmation that Karimov might be dead.

Uzbek opposition blogger Nadezhda Atayeva said Uzbek authorities appeared to be cracking down on communication channels. Speaking from western France, she said an opposition contact in Uzbekistan told her Friday morning via Skype that government officials had been told to turn off their phones and Internet speeds had slowed sharply.

As he spoke, she said, the signal went dead.


Amir Shah in Kabul, Angela Charlton in Paris, Leila Saralayeva in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, Amir Vahdat in Tehran, Jim Heintz in Moscow and Zeynep Bilginsoy in Istanbul contributed to this report.