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Islam Karimov, who ruthlessly ruled Uzbekistan for decades, dies at 78

MOSCOW — Islam Karimov, a ruthless autocrat who ruled Uzbekistan for almost three decades, died Friday in the Uzbek capital of Tashkent. He was 78.

A joint statement by the Cabinet of Ministers and the Parliament announced the death, saying he had a stroke that led to multiple organ failure.

The announcement came after a long, strange interlude during which Uzbek officials refrained from confirming the death even while the leaders of Turkey and Georgia expressed condolences, mosque leaders were barred from offering prayers for the president's health, and funeral arrangements were being made very publicly. A respected opposition website posted pictures of cemetery workers in Samarkand, the president's hometown, digging a fresh grave in a prominent location.

The most likely reason for the official silence was that top government officials had been unable to decide on the succession and did not want to announce that Karimov was dead until they could also say who would replace him, at least temporarily.

The official statement said Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoev, who is widely deemed to be the president's most likely successor, would lead the funeral today and Karimov would be buried in Samarkand in accordance with Muslim rites.

Long in poor health, Karimov had a stroke Aug. 27, ending what was often described as one of the most brutal reigns to emerge from the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Karimov rose through the ranks of the local Communist Party until Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev named him first secretary and effectively Uzbekistan's chief in 1989. He won a presidential election after independence in 1991 and used Soviet methods to govern the country.

Karimov's wife and two daughters survive him, as do four grandchildren.

By all accounts Karimov hated the political jockeying by different groups in the initial burst of freedom after independence in 1991 and worked to destroy all autonomous political, media and human rights organizations.