Violence continues to spread in the former Soviet republic of Uzbekistan.
On Friday, government troops opened fire on thousands of protesters after a group of armed men freed 2,000 inmates from a prison, including prisoners accused of Islamic extremism. Hundreds of people are reported dead and thousands more are attemping to flee the country.
Bordered by Afghanistan, Uzbekistan has been a major ally in the U.S. war on terrorism, serving as a base for U.S. special military operations in the region.
GEOGRAPHY: 172,178 square miles, slightly larger than California. It borders Kazakhstan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan.
PEOPLE: Ethnic Uzbeks make up about 80 percent of the country's 26 million population, Russians about 5.5 percent, Tajiks 5 percent, Kazakhs 3 percent and a scattering of other ethnic groups make up the rest. Interethnic conflicts have erupted in recent years, particularly among Uzbeks and Tajiks, and Uzbeks and Meskhetian Turks exiled there under Stalin.
ECONOMY: Primarily agricultural; Uzbekistan is the world's third-largest exporter of cotton and has gold and oil reserves.
POLITICS: President Islam Karimov, a former Communist Party official, became president during the Soviet era and was later elected president of independent Uzbekistan following the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. Karimov allows no dissent and has clamped down on non-state sanctioned Islamic groups. More than 50 people were killed in bombings and attacks last year that authorities blamed on the Islamic group Hizb-ut Tahrir.
U.S. RELATIONS: Uzbekistan is a key Washington ally in the war on terror and provided the United States with an air base to support military operations in neighboring Afghanistan after the Sept. 11 attacks. The Karshi-Khanabad air base, about 90 miles from the Afghan border, is the main hub for U.S. special operations in Afghanistan, with the number of troops there at times reaching several thousand. The base is more than 430 miles southwest of the capital, Tashkent.
Source: Associated Press