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Ethnic violence spreads in Kyrgyzstan, raising fears of humanitarian crisis

By Philip P. Pan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, June 14, 2010; A01

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.

Uzbeks in the region generally support the new government and have been demanding greater representation and rights, exacerbating tensions with local Kyrgyz, many of whom continue to support Bakiyev.

Anna Nelson, a spokeswoman for the International Committee of the Red Cross, said a colleague who visited the refugee camps in Uzbekistan described a "humanitarian catastrophe unfolding" and saw evidence of "very serious brutality," including a video showing Uzbeks trapped in burning buildings.

Most of those in the camps were Uzbek -- women, children and the elderly -- and some mothers had been separated from their children in the chaos, she said. Uzbek men appeared to have remained in Kyrgyzstan to defend their homes.

Nelson said another colleague witnessed about 100 bodies being buried in a city cemetery in Osh on Sunday, raising concerns about proper identification of the dead. She also noted reports that the mobs have attacked ambulances and firefighters.

"We know there are people in their homes who are wounded and can't get medical services because they're too scared to leave their homes," she said. "We're hoping that armed security forces can at least ensure medical staff can get through."

Echoing local Kyrgyz activists, Human Rights Watch urged the U.N. Security Council to take swift measures to help the Kyrgyz government stop the violence and called for the deployment of a U.N.-mandated force. "People are desperate to escape the violence, but without international assistance there's no way out, and every minute of delay is costing lives," said Andrea Berg, a researcher for Human Rights Watch in Osh.

The Uzbek government, which said it had opened its border to refugees, described the violence as "organized, managed and provocative" and intended "to create intolerable conditions for ethnic minorities living in southern Kyrgyzstan."

U.S., Russian roles

Both the Russian and American air bases are in northern Kyrgyzstan, far from the violence. If Russia intervenes, it is likely to gain a greater say in the future of the U.S. facility, which is critical to supplying NATO forces in Afghanistan. Some Russian officials have described the American base as an intrusion in Moscow's sphere of influence and tried to persuade Kyrgyzstan to close it.

Russia is scheduled to discuss the crisis in a meeting Monday of a regional alliance of former Soviet republics, but it appeared open to a response by the Security Council. Moscow has been reluctant in recent weeks to let the United Nations play a role in Kyrgyzstan, but it agreed to allow a briefing to the council on the crisis on Monday or Tuesday, a senior council diplomat said.

The senior U.S. official said measures short of a peacekeeping deployment could be considered, including humanitarian aid and a mission of international mediators or observers. If military intervention is needed, he added, "our chief concern is to make sure the international community is involved here and legitimizing or organizing any potential peacekeeping force. So far, we don't have a disagreement with the Russians about that."

He said Washington and Moscow have shared interests in Kyrgyzstan and could cooperate on a response. "We're pursuing all avenues that might decrease violence, including Russian participation," he said.

Staff writer Colum Lynch in New York contributed to this report.

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