Russia won't intervene in Kyrgyzstan; unrest spreads
MOSCOW -- Russia turned down an appeal for peacekeeping troops from the fragile interim government of Kyrgyzstan on Saturday as deadly ethnic rioting there spread to a second city and prompted a panicked exodus from the former Soviet republic, which hosts a key U.S. air base.
The Kremlin said the violence -- in which at least 77 people have been killed and nearly 1,000 injured -- did not call for Russian military intervention. But the government held emergency consultations with its neighbors about a joint response.
Thousands of frightened ethnic Uzbeks in the nation's south were fleeing toward the border with Uzbekistan as President Roza Otunbayeva acknowledged that her government had lost control of Osh, Kyrgyzstan's second-largest city. Meanwhile, new clashes broke out in the nearby city of Jalalabad.
Witnesses said gangs of young Kyrgyz men armed with guns and metal bars set fire to Uzbek neighborhoods and seized weapons from the security forces as the region braced for a third consecutive night of looting and gun battles.
Local authorities have said the violence was touched off by a brawl in a restaurant over a dinner bill. But Otunbayeva accused supporters of the recently ousted former president, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, of fanning unrest to undermine her government before a referendum this month on a new constitution.
The region is a Bakiyev stronghold and a cauldron of ethnic and religious tensions, part of a densely populated, richly fertile valley divided between Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan along largely arbitrary Soviet-era borders. In 1990, clashes over land between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz left hundreds dead, and in recent years, the three nations have sought to suppress the rise of radical Islam in the valley.
As many as 1 million Uzbeks live in Kyrgyzstan, many of them recent migrants who have taken over farms abandoned by an equally large number of Kyrgyz who have moved to Russia to find jobs. Tensions in the south have been running high since Bakiyev was ousted in a bloody uprising April 7, with Uzbeks seeking a greater role in the new political order and many Kyrgyz there continuing to back the deposed president.
Local media broadcast images of Uzbek families streaming from burning villages and massing near the border, and the Associated Press reported that several children had been killed in stampeding crowds. There were conflicting reports about whether the refugees were being granted passage into Uzbekistan.
"Fighting and rampages are continuing," Otunbayeva told reporters, warning of a humanitarian crisis as food supplies in the region dwindled. "We need the entry of outside forces to calm the situation. We have appealed to Russia for help, and I have already signed such a letter for President Dmitry Medvedev."
Kremlin spokeswoman Natalya Timakova said Russia was sending humanitarian aid and helping to evacuate the wounded. She added that a decision to send peacekeepers would be made by the Collective Security Treaty Organization, a regional alliance that scheduled an emergency meeting for Monday.
"This is an internal conflict, and for now, Russia does not see the conditions for taking part in its resolution," she told the Interfax news agency.
Kyrgyzstan, an impoverished nation of more than 5 million, is the only country that hosts both American and Russian military bases. If Moscow agrees to send peacekeepers, it is likely to gain greater leverage over the future of the U.S. facility, which is critical to supplying NATO forces in Afghanistan.
Russia's influence in Kyrgyzstan has been on the rise since Bakiyev's ouster. The autocrat fell out of favor with the Kremlin by breaking a promise to close the U.S. base and fled the country after his security forces opened fire on protesters, killing more than 80 people.
A provisional government made up of former opposition figures quickly took power but has struggled to maintain order, especially in the south, where it has repeatedly clashed with Bakiyev loyalists. Critics say the security forces are understaffed and led by corrupt officials with ties to organized crime.
Azimbek Beknazarov, the senior law enforcement official in the interim government, told reporters that the authorities have been forced to rely on volunteers. "We will run out of strength within the next two days if no assistance comes," he said.