Strongman Uzbek leader Karimov buried

Samarkand (Uzbekistan) (AFP) - Uzbekistan laid strongman Islam Karimov to rest Saturday amid tight security, after his death triggered the deepest period of uncertainty in the country's post-Soviet history with no clear successor in view.

Karimov, 78, was pronounced dead late Friday after suffering a stroke last weekend and falling into a coma, authorities said, following days of speculation about his rapidly failing health.

An Islamic funeral for the iron-fisted leader -- who dominated the ex-Soviet nation for some 27 years -- was held in his home city of Samarkand, southwestern Uzbekistan, on Saturday and the country will begin three days of mourning.

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and the presidents of Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Afghanistan were among dignitaries attending the memorial service on the famed UNESCO World Heritage site of Registan Square.

Uzbek state television showed footage of mourners carrying Karimov's coffin through a crowd in the historic square which is encircled by blue-domed madrassas.

- 'Irreplaceable loss' -

"Our people and Uzbekistan have suffered an irreplaceable loss," Russian news wire Interfax quoted Uzbek Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev as saying at the ceremony.

"Death took from our midst the founder of the state of Uzbekistan, a great and dear son of our people."

Loyalist Mirziyoyev headed the organising committee for the funeral, in a sign that he could be the frontrunner to replace Karimov.

Russian premier Medvedev told the Uzbek leadership that Moscow "in these sad days" is "with you, you can have no doubt", RIA Novosti reported.

An AFP journalist in Samarkand -- which also houses the mausoleum of feared 14th century warlord Tamerlane -- said national flags were flying with black ribbons of mourning attached and that the road to the cemetery where Karimov was buried next to his family was strewn with roses.

Police had cordoned off most of the centre of the city and were not letting ordinary citizens or cars through.

- 'We were all crying' -

Despite his brutal quarter-century rule, which earned him a reputation abroad as one of the region's most savage despots who ruthlessly stamped out opposition, people in Karimov's home town mourned his passing and some youths wore black clothes.

"When we found out about his death, all my family -- my wife, my son's wife, the children -- we were all crying, we couldn't believe it," one local man, 58, told AFP, refusing to give his name.

"It is a great loss for every Uzbek. He made our country free and developed."

Crowds of people had earlier reportedly lined the road to watch and throw flowers at the cortege as it drove through the capital Tashkent.

- Moment of uncertainty -

Karimov was one of a handful of Soviet strongmen who clung to power after their homelands gained independence from Moscow in 1991, and he played Russia, the West and China off against each other.

The most serious challenge to his rule came from his eldest daughter, once seen as a possible heir, whom he placed under house arrest in 2014 after a family power struggle erupted publicly.

Uzbekistan has never held elections deemed free and fair by international monitors, and Karimov won his fifth term in office last March with 90 percent of the vote.

Under Uzbek law, senate head Nigmatulla Yuldashev has now become acting president until early elections are held.

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.

- Legacy of repression -

"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.