Islam Karimov, Uzbekistan's longtime authoritarian ruler, dies

Islam Karimov, the authoritarian ruler of the Central Asian nation of Uzbekistan for more than a quarter-century, has died, one of his daughters confirmed late Friday.

"He has left us. I'm trying to find words for this. I cannot believe it," Lola Karimova-Tillyaeva wrote on her Facebook page.

The 78-year-old succumbed to complications from a stroke suffered last week, according to several Russian news agencies. Uzbek government websites, including the state news agency, were unavailable late Friday.

Russian President Vladimir Putin called Karimov's death "a heavy loss for the people of Uzbekistan," in a Kremlin statement.

Uzbek Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev has been instructed to organize a funeral Saturday in Karimov's hometown of Samarkand. Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev has announced that he will attend.

Karimov permitted almost no opposition since becoming president upon Uzbekistan's independence after the fall of the Soviet Union, and he has no clear successor.

Mirziyoyev, a member of his close inner circle, is considered a likely successor. The speaker of Uzbekistan's Senate, Nigmatilla Yuldashev, is expected to temporarily assume Karimov's role until a popular election.

However, there have been reports of infighting among Karimov's inner circle. This week, the Uzbek government denied reports that a possible successor, Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Rustam Azimov, had been placed under house arrest.

Karimov ruled with an iron fist, tolerating little dissent. Uzbekistan borders the troubled states of Tajikistan and Afghanistan, and has maintained stability through pressure and violence.

Like many other rulers in Central Asia, Karimov was wary of the encroachment of Islamism. His regime has effectively suppressed the terrorist-linked Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.

To secure his power, Karimov not only forbade secular opposition parties but also forced the Muslim clergy to follow the state line. After a failed assassination attempt in 1999, Karimov imprisoned thousands of alleged Islamists.

In 2005, Uzbek soldiers killed hundreds of unarmed protesters in the city of Andijan. Karimov denounced the protest as an uprising planned abroad by extremists.

Uzbekistan has remained largely within Russia's sphere of influence since Soviet times but has also provided crucial footing for the US war in Afghanistan, allowing US forces to use a major Uzbek airbase.

Karimov was appointed head of the then-Soviet republic's Communist Party in 1989 and went on to become president of the newly independent country in 1991.

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