Uzbekistan set to bury late strongman Karimov
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Uzbekistan will bury President Islam Karimov Saturday, as his death plunges the Central Asian nation into the greatest period of uncertainty in its post-Soviet history with no clear successor to the iron-fisted ruler.
Karimov, 78, was pronounced dead late Friday after he suffered a stroke last weekend and fell into a coma, the authorities said, following days of speculation that officials were delaying making his death public.
The funeral for the strongman -- who dominated the ex-Soviet nation for some 27 years -- will be held in his home city of Samarkand, central Uzbekistan, Saturday morning and the country will begin three days of mourning.
State television in the tightly-controlled nation showed soldiers loading a coffin onto a plane for what it described as Karimov's final journey to Samarkand.
His coffin will be displayed in a city square for people to pay their last respects before he is buried in a nearby cemetery later Saturday, Russian news agencies reported, citing local officials.
Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev is expected to fly in for the funeral, along with a coterie of leaders from former Soviet republics including Tajik President Emomali Rakhmon, Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov and the prime ministers of Kyrgyzstan, Belarus and Kazakhstan.
Loyalist Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev is heading the organisation committee for the funeral, in a sign that he could be the frontrunner to take over long-term from Karimov.
Under Uzbek law, senate head Nigmatulla Yuldashev has now become acting president until early elections are held.
'Phase of uncertainty'
Karimov was one of a handful of Soviet strongmen who clung to power after their homelands gained independence from Moscow in 1991.
His brutal quarter century rule earned him a reputation as one of the region's most brutal despots who ruthlessly stamped out opposition.
The most serious challenge to his rule came in the guise of his eldest daughter, once seen as a possible heir, who he put under house arrest in 2014 after a family power struggle broke into the open.
Uzbekistan has never held elections deemed free and fair by the international monitors, and Karimov won his fifth term in office last March with 90 percent of the vote.
His death pushes the strategically located landlocked country into a "phase of uncertainty", the head of the Russian lower house of parliament's international affairs committee, Alexei Pushkov, said Friday.
Rights groups -- which have long accused Karimov's regime of the most serious abuses including torture and forced labour in the lucrative cotton industry -- have slammed his time in power as a catastrophe for Uzbekistan.
But Karimov portrayed himself as guarantor of stability and bulwark against radical Islam on the borders of Afghanistan, crushing fundamentalist groups in the majority Muslim republic.
"Islam Karimov leaves a legacy of a quarter century of ruthless repression," said Steve Swerdlow, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch.
"Karimov ruled through fear to erect a system synonymous with the worst human rights abuses: torture, disappearances, forced labour, and the systematic crushing of dissent."
Despite Karimov's brutal record, Uzbekistan still receives US aid and both Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian leader Vladimir Putin have jetted in for talks over the past year.
As world powers continue to vie for influence, activists question how the nation's rights record can ever improve.