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After 4 days, violence subsides in Kyrgyzstan, but ethnic resentments linger

By Philip P. Pan
Wednesday, June 16, 2010; A06

JALAL-ABAD, KYRGYZSTAN -- The main road through this rustic town on the edge of the rich fields of the Fergana Valley offers a telling view of the destruction that has unfolded in southern Kyrgyzstan in recent days.

On one side of the street, the University of People's Friendship is a charred ruin, a symbol of ethnic harmony no more. Across the road, a community TV station has been left a blackened shell. Then come the torched cafes and shops, followed by seven blocks of burned-out Uzbek homes, a miserable procession interrupted only by the trees that residents cut down in a desperate bid to slow rampaging Kyrgyz mobs.

After more than four days of ethnic clashes that have left hundreds dead, the violence appeared to subside Tuesday in Jalal-Abad. In an interview, Kyrgyzstan's defense minister said the government had largely restored order here and in the nearby city of Osh and was dropping its appeal for an international peacekeeping force to intervene.

Even here amid the rubble of Lenin Street, which had been a center of the fighting, there was a sign of progress: a mixed crowd of ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks stood peacefully together to pick up emergency rations of noodles, flour and cooking oil. Many said it was the first time they had dared venture outside since the killing began.

But when residents were asked about what had happened -- about why neighbors had turned against each other so suddenly and in such brutal fashion -- the simmering anger between the Kyrgyz and the minority Uzbeks quickly surfaced, hinting at the continuing volatility of the situation.

Gulsara Atabayeva, 40, a Kyrgyz woman jostling for position near the back of the crowd, confessed she was terrified that Uzbek gangs from nearby villages might "come to kill us." But in the next breath, she dismissed the fears of Uzbeks who had fled by the tens of thousands to refugee camps along the border with Uzbekistan.

"Of course they can come back," she said casually. "If they don't touch us, we won't touch them."

Like many Kyrgyz interviewed, she rejected the government's allegation that the country's recently deposed president, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, had provoked the clashes in an attempt to return to power in the chaos.

Bakiyev was born here and remains popular among local Kyrgyz. Uzbeks, however, tend to support the interim government that toppled him in a bloody revolt in April.

"No, no, there was no Bakiyev," insisted a 27-year-old Kyrgyz man in the crowd, who gave only his first name, Aibek. Voicing a common view, he instead blamed a prominent Uzbek leader -- Kadyrzhan Batyrov, the head of the university that was burned down and an active supporter of the new government.

Over the past few months, Batyrov has stepped up a campaign demanding greater political rights and representation for ethnic Uzbeks, who make up 15 percent of the population nationally but rival the Kyrgyz in numbers in the south. His efforts have fanned Kyrgyz fears that he wants to split part of the region into an autonomous Uzbek entity -- and that the interim government might let him.

"Batyrov said that Osh and Jalal-Abad would be theirs and that his policy was to make them Uzbek towns," Aibek said. Asked to explain the attacks on Uzbek neighborhoods, he replied, "People did this only after what the Uzbeks did to us in Osh." He then repeated widely circulating rumors that Uzbek gangs had raped Kyrgyz women there.

A soft-spoken man in the crowd volunteered that he agreed, arguing that the Uzbeks had destroyed their own homes. But as he spoke, a young Uzbek woman standing behind him grimaced and shook her head. Finally, she interrupted. "That's not the truth!" she objected. "That's not what happened!"

Akhmet Salijon, a Pakistani resident standing in the line, backed her up. "The Kyrgyz gangs did this," he said, gesturing at the burned Uzbek houses down the street. "They're the ones who attacked the Uzbeks."

In Geneva, the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights said it had collected evidence indicating that the violence began Thursday night with five simultaneous attacks in Osh involving men wearing masks and carrying guns.

"It looked like they were seeking to provoke a reaction," said spokesman Rupert Colville, adding that one of the attacks was on a gym known to be used by a criminal group. "Targeting that gym was likely to provoke a reaction."

The information lends support to the interim government's view that Bakiyev or his associates incited the riots, perhaps to disrupt a popular vote this month on a new constitution that would weaken his claim to power. Bakiyev, in exile in Belarus, has denied playing any role in the clashes.

In the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek, a senior government official, Almazbek Atambayev, said investigators have concluded that Bakiyev's youngest son, Maxim, financed the operation to provoke the violence from overseas. The charge came as the government disclosed that Maxim had been detained by British authorities.

In separate interviews Tuesday, two other senior figures in the government -- its vice chairman, Omurbek Tekebayev, and defense minister, Ismail Isakov -- also blamed the Bakiyev family and said police had gathered evidence proving the link.

But in an apparent concession to ethnic Kyrgyz sentiment in the south that could enrage local Uzbeks, who appear to have suffered far greater casualties, both men also said "extremist leaders" in the Uzbek community should be blamed for angering local Kyrgyz with provocative speeches.

Isakov mentioned Batyrov by name, accusing him of calling for the dismantling of the Kyrgyz government in the south.

He noted that Kyrgyz and Uzbeks have lived in friendship for generations in the Fergana Valley. "That's why we can't forgive this statement," he said of Batyrov. "The root of the problem is not an ethnic conflict but political, and as a result, innocent people suffered."

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