U.N. doubles estimate of Uzbek refugees as crisis grows in Kyrgyzstan

After gang violence broke out against ethnic Uzbeks in southern Kyrgyzstan, refugees have been forced to the Uzbekistan border.
By Philip P. Pan
Friday, June 18, 2010

OSH, KYRGYZSTAN -- The United Nations said Thursday that some 400,000 people have been driven from their homes by ethnic clashes in southern Kyrgyzstan, doubling its estimate of the number of refugees here and acknowledging that it was having trouble delivering aid because of continuing violence.

The new U.N. assessment highlighting the severity of the crisis came as the Kyrgyz military appeared to run into difficulties in its effort to restore order to the region, where more than 2 million people live. At least 180 have been killed in clashes between Kyrgyz and minority Uzbeks over the past week.

For a third straight day, conditions seemed to improve, with more residents feeling safe enough to venture out of their homes. But witnesses reported sporadic gunfire as troops patrolled the streets, including shots fired by unidentified gunmen at aid workers attempting to distribute food.

A children's home was reported to have been looted and set on fire, and in the afternoon, a dark plume of smoke could be seen rising from a village outside Osh, the country's second-largest city, where several Uzbek districts have been burned to the ground.

In another incident that suggested the volatility of the situation, a motorist stopped in Osh at what appeared to be a military checkpoint was asked his ethnicity, and when he said he was Uzbek, one of the uniformed men allegedly drew a knife and threatened to slit his throat. The driver tried to escape but was shot, according to his niece, Zebeil Hamrayava, 32, who said he had been hospitalized in serious condition.

Hamrayava said it was unclear whether the men at the checkpoint were Kyrgyz soldiers or impostors. But her account of the shooting dovetailed with other reports of Kyrgyz men in military uniforms targeting ethnic Uzbeks who leave their enclaves.

The behavior of the army and police during the past week's violence is a major grievance among Uzbeks, who accuse the security forces of letting Kyrgyz mobs run wild for several days, and in many cases, of taking part in the mayhem and slaughter themselves. While Uzbeks make up nearly half the region's population, almost all soldiers and police here are ethnic Kyrgyz.

Bakytbek Alymbekov, a deputy interior minister and the top police official in the Osh region, acknowledged that Uzbeks were wary of the troops that have been dispatched across the city.

But he said investigators had not identified any soldiers or police involved in the violence and suggested that those who organized the riots had distributed uniforms and weapons to the mobs. He added that the crowds managed to seize control of military vehicles, including armored personnel carriers, in the first few days of the chaos.

Ole Solvang, a Human Rights Watch researcher investigating the clashes in Osh, said the testimony he has collected thus far indicates that Kyrgyz troops at the very least ignored the attacks on Uzbek neighborhoods.

"It seems to be an extreme failure on the part of the government to intervene and protect these people," he said.

Kyrgyzstan's shaky interim government has accused the deposed president, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, and his family of triggering the riots by paying gunmen to attack Kyrgyz and Uzbek neighborhoods. In recent days, the government has also begun to shift the blame toward ethnic Uzbek politicians, many of whom had been strong allies in opposing Bakiyev and his base of ethnic Kyrgyz supporters in the south.

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