Ethnic violence spreads in Kyrgyzstan, raising fears of humanitarian crisis

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
Monday, June 14, 2010

MOSCOW -- Deadly riots spread across southern Kyrgyzstan on Sunday as police with shoot-to-kill orders failed to stop the nation's worst ethnic violence in two decades and aid agencies reported that as many as 80,000 people had fled across the border to Uzbekistan.

With scores killed and hundreds injured as Kyrgyz mobs rampaged through ethnic Uzbek villages, human rights groups urged the international community to intervene and prevent a humanitarian disaster. But neither Russia nor the United States, both of which have military bases in the impoverished Central Asian country, appeared willing to dispatch peacekeeping troops.

A senior Obama administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said Washington was in "extremely close communication with the Russians" and trying to coordinate a response through the United Nations or another international institution. But he said it was too early to speculate about military intervention.

"We want to do things that help reduce the violence, and to assume that the introduction of another set of armed forces from outside would help bring down the violence, there's different ways to look at that," he said.

Kyrgyzstan's shaky interim government, which came to power in a bloody uprising in April, has acknowledged losing control of the region and on Saturday appealed to Russia to send troops. But Russian President Dmitry Medvedev turned down the request, calling the violence an internal matter. Other officials said Moscow was reluctant to get involved in what could become a civil war.

The Kyrgyz government said the death toll climbed to 114 on Sunday, with more than 1,400 wounded. But local officials and aid workers said the actual number of casualties may be much higher because bodies remain uncollected in the streets and many people are too scared to go to hospitals.

Bakiyev loyalists blamed

The clashes that began Thursday night in Osh, the nation's second-largest city, involved bands of Kyrgyz men that stormed police stations collecting guns and attacked Uzbek neighborhoods and villages, looting and setting fire to buildings and slaughtering residents. Gangs of Uzbeks also have been reported attacking Kyrgyz communities.

It is unclear what sparked the violence, but local officials have accused supporters of the recently deposed president, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, of inciting the turmoil to undermine the provisional government ahead of a referendum this month on a new constitution.

The mayor of Jalal-Abad, the city where the worst fighting seems to have shifted, has asserted that Bakiyev loyalists set off the riots by attacking both Uzbeks and Kyrgyz. Local police officials also have said that relatives of Bakiyev have been spotted leading Kyrgyz mobs and distributing weapons.

The region is considered a Bakiyev stronghold, and several members of the former autocrat's family are thought to be in hiding there or in nearby Tajikistan. Some are wanted in connection with abuses blamed on Bakiyev's government, including political assassinations and the killing of protesters during the April 7 revolt that toppled him.

Bakiyev, speaking from exile in Belarus, denied any role in the unrest and warned that Kyrgyzstan was in danger of losing its sovereignty. "People are being killed and no one in the current government can protect them," he said in a statement distributed by the Interfax news agency.

Chaos and brutality

About 15 percent of Kyrgyzstan's largely Muslim population of 5 million is ethnic Uzbeks, but in Osh and Jalal-Abad, their numbers rival those of the ethnic Kyrgyz. The area is part of a fertile valley that includes sections of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan and has a long history of ethnic strife, including clashes over land in 1990 that left hundreds dead.

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