Troops, Uzbeks clash in new violence 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
Monday, June 21, 2010; 10:43 AM

MOSCOW -- Government forces in Kyrgyzstan clashed with minority Uzbeks near the southern city of Osh on Monday, killing two people and wounding more than 20 others as the authorities sought to take control of barricaded ethnic Uzbek enclaves across the region.

Kyrgyz officials said troops opened fire after entering the village of Nariman after someone shot at them. But witnesses told human rights activists and local news agencies that the Kyrgyz soldiers beat Uzbek residents as they conducted a house-by-house sweep.

The fresh violence in Nariman, where a Kyrgyz police chief and his driver were killed a week ago, underscored the continuing volatility of the region and the intensity of animosity between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks there.

A month before the deadly ethnic clashes that devastated southern Kyrgyzstan last week, a mob loyal to the recently deposed president, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, seized the provincial government building and expelled the local governor. The next day, another crowd, supporting the forces that had toppled Bakiyev, recaptured the building and reinstalled the official.

From a distance, the incident hardly seemed significant. Kyrgyzstan's new interim government appeared to have maintained the status quo.

But the back and forth on May 13-14 was a turning point. Because many in the crowd that prevailed were minority Uzbeks, the struggle for political control of the region began to be seen as a battle for ethnic survival, especially among the Kyrgyz majority. That perception grew in the following weeks, fanned by local politicians as the national authorities in the north struggled to respond.

Now, after an explosion of rioting, killing and rape that has left as many as 2,200 people dead and entire neighborhoods in ruins, two communities that had lived together peacefully for nearly 20 years are boiling with mutual hostility, and the government of this strategically located Central Asian country appears more fragile than ever.

In a late-night interview after making her first trip to the south, interim President Roza Otunbayeva blamed the violence on her exiled predecessor, saying his allies had taken advantage of longstanding ethnic tensions and incited the riots. "Bakiyev's people, they found that this is exactly where they could really smash the government and smash the situation," she said.

Otunbayeva acknowledged that she did not have full control of the security forces and warned that Bakiyev's allies were planning attacks in northern Kyrgyzstan, home to an important U.S. air base. "There are a number of people in key positions loyal to Bakiyev, and in the local governments, too," she said. "They're working hard and certainly, absolutely [engaging in] sabotage."

But Otunbayeva's interim government -- a coalition of former opposition leaders who came to power in a bloody revolt against Bakiyev in April -- has come under intense criticism for mishandling ethnic relations in southern Kyrgyzstan and failing to prevent the violence in Jalal-Abad and in nearby Osh, the country's second-largest city.

Some accuse it of coddling Uzbek activists who angered the Kyrgyz public with demands for greater rights and representation. Others say it betrayed the Uzbeks -- who had been allies in overthrowing Bakiyev -- by failing to stand up to his Kyrgyz supporters.

Ethnic Uzbeks make up about 15 percent of the population, but they rival the Kyrgyz in numbers in the south, which straddles a densely populated valley shared with Uzbekistan and Tajikistan along arbitrary, Soviet-era borders. In 1990, a conflict over land between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz in Osh left hundreds dead.

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