Preparations for large funeral under way in hometown of president, who died at the age of 78 after suffering a stroke.
President Islam Karimov’s funeral cortege made its way through the Uzbek capital, Tashkent, as thousands of people lined the city’s main road on Saturday morning.
Karimov, who died on Friday at the age of 78 after suffering a stroke, will be buried later on Saturday in his hometown, Samarkand, about 300km southwest of the capital.
Since the announcement of his death, a three-day mourning period was declared, and the preparations accelerated in Samarkand, Uzbekistan’s second city, Al Jazeera’s Andrew Simmons said, reporting from Bishkek in neighbouring Kyrgyzstan.
"With most countries being represented at prime minister-level, the funeral will be huge," he said.
The veteran leader had run the ex-Soviet Central Asian nation since 1989, and nearly half of its 32 million citizens were born after he came to power.
Many mourners held flowers, mostly red roses, which they laid on the road as the funeral convoy, which set out at 6am (01:00 GMT) drove by on its way to the airport.
"What are we going to do without you?" a weeping mourner shouted.
A 39-year-old Tashkent resident, who declined to be identified, told Reuters news agency: "This was the longest and hardest week in my life ... Still can’t believe it happened. I don’t know what happens now. I am lost."
Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev has been designated mourner-in-chief at Karimov’s funeral, which is seen as a strong hint he might become the next president.
"I think in the corridors of power, they have already started fighting," Kamoliddin Rabbimov, an independent Uzbek political analyst based in France, told the AFP news agency, while predicting the elite will be eager to ensure the transition is "more or less stable".
If they fail to agree on a compromise, however, open confrontation could destabilise the mainly Muslim state that shares a border with Afghanistan.
Unrest would have repercussions for Russia, the regional power and home to hundreds of thousands of Uzbek migrant workers, and for the US-allied government in Afghanistan.
The Kremlin’s top political adviser, Yuri Ushakov, said on Saturday that Moscow expected the political situation in Uzbekistan to remain stable.
The Uzbek government has repeatedly been criticised for human rights abuses, most notoriously in 2005 in the city of Andijan, where government forces are accused of killing hundreds of demonstrators.
The United Nations describes the use of torture in Uzbekistan as systematic, and Reporters Without Borders said Karimov frequently broke his own records for repression and paranoia.
Former British ambassador to Uzbekistan, Craig Murray, accused Karimov’s security forces of executing two dissidents by boiling them to death.
Karimov grew up in an orphanage in Samarkand and went on to study mechanical engineering and economics, before joining the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. In 1989, he was appointed as the party’s First Secretary in Uzbekistan.
- People stood along a road to pay the tribute to Karimov in Tashkent