Thousands flee ethnic rioting in Kyrgyzstan as violence continues to spread

After gang violence broke out against ethnic Uzbeks in southern Kyrgyzstan, refugees have been forced to the Uzbekistan border.
By Philip P. Pan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, June 13, 2010; 12:54 PM

MOSCOW -- Uzbekistan began setting up camps Sunday for tens of thousands of refugees fleeing ethnic rioting in southern Kyrgyzstan, as armed Kyrgyz gangs continued to rampage through Uzbek villages and human rights groups called on the United Nations to intervene.

The fragile interim government of Kyrgyzstan announced the death toll in the nation's worst ethnic clashes in two decades had climbed to 97, with more than 1,200 others wounded. But officials said the actual casualties are far higher because many people are too frightened to go to hospitals.

Witnesses described seeing uncollected bodies in the streets of Osh, the country's second-largest city, where the violence began Thursday night, and a local official told the Associated Press that 30 Uzbeks were killed Sunday in a village of outside the nearby city of Jalalabad. Uzbek mobs were also reported attacking Kyrgyz residents.

Echoing local activists, Human Rights Watch urged the U.N. Security Council to take swift measures to help the Kyrgyz government and called for the deployment of a U.N.-mandated force to the region.

"The Kyrgyz government needs to protect people from ethnic reprisals, provide food, and let people leave Osh if they need to, but it can't do all that effectively without international assistance," said Andrea Berg, a researcher for the organization in Osh. "The U.N. Security Council should intervene now, before interethnic violence engulfs the rest of Kyrgyzstan."

Uzbekistan said more than 75,000 refugees -- most of them elderly people, women and children, some suffering gunshot wounds -- had already crossed the border into the country, according to statement carried by Russia's official RIA Novosti news agency.

Russia turned down an appeal from Kyrgyz President Roza Otunbayeva to send peacekeeping troops Saturday, describing the situation as a domestic matter. But the Kremlin is scheduled to consult with regional allies Monday about a joint response.

The U.S. Embassy in Bishkek issued a statement expressing deep concern about the violence and said it was in discussions about providing humanitarian assistance. Kyrgyz officials have said the government has not approached Washington about sending a peacekeeping force to the region.

Kyrgyzstan hosts an important American air base as well as a small Russian one, but both facilities are located in the country's north, far from the violence.

Otunbayeva has acknowledged losing control of Osh, and the government's security forces appeared to be on the defensive again Sunday as young men continued setting fires and storming police stations for weapons after a third straight 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.

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