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Kyrgyz president says Uzbek barricades will be removed

After gang violence broke out against ethnic Uzbeks in southern Kyrgyzstan, refugees have been forced to the Uzbekistan border.

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By Philip P. Pan
Saturday, June 19, 2010

BISHKEK, KYRGYZSTAN -- Kyrgyzstan's interim president instructed police Friday to begin dismantling the barricades that ethnic Uzbeks have built to protect themselves from Kyrgyz mobs, a high-risk move that could ease the refugee crisis in the nation's south but spark more violence.

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In an interview after making her first trip to the region since the deadly clashes between Kyrgyz and minority Uzbeks began a week ago, President Roza Otunbayeva said she ordered local authorities to work with civil society groups and to exercise restraint as they removed the trucks, trees and concrete barriers that Uzbek enclaves are using to keep Kyrgyz out. But she said police might need to use force to complete the task if Uzbeks resist.

"There are worries, certainly," she said. "How can I not be worried? But we can't just leave it like that. This will continue and continue, and there will be closed sectors, and how can you deliver humanitarian assistance? We must move. We must do something."

Otunbayeva and her government, which took power in a violent revolt in April, have come under intense public criticism for not restoring access to the Uzbek districts. Some nationalist Kyrgyz politicians have threatened to organize militias to remove the barricades if the government doesn't act, saying Kyrgyz sovereignty over the areas is in jeopardy.

In addition to clearing a path to bring relief aid to hundreds of thousands of Uzbeks who have been driven from their homes, Otunbayeva said removing the barricades will allow Kyrgyz families to search for missing relatives in ethnic Uzbek districts, help troops reestablish public order and encourage refugees to return home.

In Osh, the country's second-largest city, where the riots began, a senior police official, Kursan Asanov, set a deadline for Uzbeks to cooperate. "Within two days, access will be opened to the barricaded districts and the Uzbek communities where military forces can't enter," he said.

But the barricades have kept Kyrgyz and Uzbeks largely apart in recent days. Taking them down could result in renewed fighting between two traumatized and angry communities that accuse the other of atrocities.

The government says 223 people have been killed in the clashes, which have subsided in recent days. But the number of deaths could be 10 times higher because many victims have been buried without being taken to hospitals, Otunbayeva said.

"I think they should be very careful, and negotiate and build trust. Trying to tear down these barricades forcefully will not be received well," said Ole Solvang, a researcher with Human Rights Watch in the region, noting that many Uzbeks say Kyrgyz police and soldiers allowed mobs to rampage through their neighborhoods and even participated in the mayhem.

Solvang acknowledged that the barricades are slowing the delivery of aid to Uzbek refugees and are preventing ambulances from entering the neighborhoods. But he said Uzbeks are "afraid that if we take down the barricades, they'll be vulnerable to attacks again from ethnic Kyrgyz."

"There are good reasons why they feel insecure," he added. He noted that he and a colleague have documented that Uzbeks who leave their enclaves continue to be attacked, beaten and raped despite the government's assertion that it has restored order in Kyrgyz areas.

In a letter Friday, Human Rights Watch and another influential organization, the International Crisis Group, called on the U.N. Security Council to send a neutral police or military force to the region to establish a corridor for the delivery of aid, provide security for refugees to return home and make it possible for reconciliation programs to begin.

"The instability in southern Kyrgyzstan cannot be wished away, and without a decisive international response, there is considerable risk that widespread violence will reignite," the groups said, urging Russia and other countries that can deploy forces quickly to participate in the mission. Kyrgyzstan hosts U.S. and Russian air bases in the country's north.

Asked about the appeal, Otunbayeva expressed skepticism. "Nobody's ready to come in so far," she said.

She also acknowledged for the first time that some Kyrgyz police and soldiers may have participated in the violence. But she expressed faith in the ability of Kyrgyz prosecutors to conduct a fair investigation and said Uzbek witnesses and community groups had already provided much more evidence than Kyrgyz.

In Uzbekistan, where he was visiting a refugee camp near the Kyrgyz border, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Robert Blake called for an international inquiry to complement the Kyrgyz probe into the violence.


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