U.S. envoy calls for probe into Kyrgyzstan violence

By Romain Goguelin and Yuras Karmanau
Sunday, June 20, 2010

BISHKEK, KYRGYZSTAN -- A top U.S. envoy called Saturday for an independent investigation into the violence that has devastated southern Kyrgyzstan, as amateur video emerged of unarmed Uzbeks gathering to defend their town during the attacks.

Prosecutors on Saturday charged the man who shot the video, Azimzhan Askarov, with inciting ethnic hatred. Askarov, an ethnic Uzbek who heads the prominent human rights group Air, had accused the military of complicity in the bloody rampages that sent hundreds of thousands of Uzbeks fleeing for their lives.

Kyrgyzstan's rights ombudsman, Tursunbek Akun, insisted that the charges against Askarov were fabricated, and activists in Bishkek demonstrated outside United Nations offices to demand his release.

Valentina Gritsenko, head of the Justice rights organization, said she feared Askarov was being tortured. He was detained with his brother Tuesday in his southern hometown of Bazar-Korgon, colleagues said.

Entire Uzbek neighborhoods in southern Kyrgyzstan have been reduced to scorched ruins by mobs of ethnic Kyrgyz who forced nearly half of the region's roughly 800,000 Uzbeks to flee. Interim President Roza Otunbayeva said that up to 2,000 people might have died in the clashes.

Assistant Secretary of State Robert Blake met with Otunbayeva in Bishkek, the capital, Saturday after touring several packed refugee camps in neighboring Uzbekistan.

Blake said that the interim government should probe the violence and that "such an investigation should be complemented by an international investigation by a credible international body." He said the United States is working with the Kyrgyz government to make sure the refugees will be able to return home safely. The U.S. government has released $32.2 million in aid, and Russia and France sent planeloads of relief gear.

Kyrgyz authorities say the violence was sparked by supporters of former president Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who was ousted in April amid accusations of corruption. The U.N. has said the unrest appeared orchestrated, but has stopped short of assigning blame. Bakiyev, from exile, has denied any involvement.

Many ethnic Uzbeks accused security forces of standing by or helping majority Kyrgyz mobs as they slaughtered Uzbeks and burned neighborhoods. Col. Iskander Ikramov, chief of the Kyrgyz military in the south, says the army did not interfere because it is not a police force.

The Associated Press obtained Askarov's video, which was shot June 13 at the height of the rampages. It shows a few dozen Uzbeks pacing nervously around a square in Bazar-Korgon, an ethnic Uzbek settlement, apparently before rioters descended. Armed with only sticks and stones, several men are seen heading across the square as gun shots ring out and smoke rises in background.

"Are we going to just sit around and wait for them?" one man says in Uzbek. In a different shot, a voice that colleagues confirm as Askarov's is heard saying, "They're getting close."

"So many people have died over there . . . One armed group is gone. There is still another which has stayed. They're shooting from the direction of the prison, and Uzbeks have nothing but sticks one meter or half a meter long. There is smoke rising, and I have no idea what's left there," Askarov says.

Destruction caused during the rampages was visible Saturday in parts of Bazar-Korgon, and Askarov's office was one of several gutted buildings.

The U.N. estimates 400,000 people have fled their homes and about 100,000 of them have entered Uzbekistan.

Thousands of ethnic Uzbeks massed this week in VLKSM (Veh-L-Kah-S-M), a village near Kyrgyzstan's main southern city of Osh. The village's name is a Russian-language acronym for the Soviet Communist Youth League, left over from when this Central Asian nation was a Soviet republic.

Christian Cardon, a spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross, said agency workers distributed oil and wheat flour to 12,750 displaced people in VLKSM on Saturday and handed out supplies to 18,750 displaced in Suretapa.

"The situation is still quite tense, but we're able to access all the places" where uprooted people have gathered, he said.

Red Cross and Kyrgyz Red Crescent workers monitor the distribution of aid, he said.

Many said they could not go back to their towns and live next to the people they accuse of attacking them.

"This is our nation, this is a holy land, but I can't live here anymore," said Mukhabat Ergashova, a retiree who had taken shelter with dozens of others in a crowded tent.

"We are all witnesses to the fact that innocent citizens were fired upon from an armored personnel carrier by soldiers in military uniform. I don't know whether they were from the government or some third party, but they only shot at Uzbeks," said Sabir Khaidir, an ethnic Uzbek in Jalal-Abad.

-- Associated Press

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