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In aftermath of ethnic clashes, Kyrgyzstan votes to approve new constitution

By Philip P. Pan
Monday, June 28, 2010; A07

MOSCOW -- The people of Kyrgyzstan voted Sunday to adopt a new constitution in a referendum that appeared to proceed calmly despite smoldering tensions after ethnic clashes left hundreds dead two weeks ago.

By holding the vote without violence -- and winning 90 percent support for its proposals -- the country's fragile provisional government can claim a popular mandate that may boost its authority and help it to take greater control of regions still loyal to Kurmanbek Bakiyev, the recently ousted president.

"This is no longer an interim government but a legitimate government," said Roza Otunbayeva, the leader of the opposition coalition that seized power in a bloody revolt in April. "We are proud of our people. We are proud of our country, which made this choice at a difficult hour."

Speaking to reporters in the capital, Bishkek, after traveling to the riot-torn city of Osh to cast her ballot, Otunbayeva said the public had voted overwhelmingly to establish Central Asia's first parliamentary democracy, to schedule elections for October and to let her serve as acting president until the end of next year.

Election officials said that more than two-thirds of eligible voters went to the polls under tight security -- a remarkable turnout, given the recent clashes in the country's south between ethnic Kyrgyz and minority Uzbeks, in which about 400,000 people were driven from their homes and as many as 2,000 were killed.

The government's critics cast doubt on the official turnout figures, estimating that closer to one-third actually voted. But election observers reported no serious irregularities.

"Voter turnout was much higher than what we expected it would be because of the massive riots," said Dinara Oshurakhunova, head of a local monitoring group, For Democracy and Civil Society Coalition, in televised remarks.

But the level of participation in Uzbek neighborhoods, many of which were burned to the ground in the clashes, was unclear. Uzbeks had generally supported the provisional government, but they suffered most of the casualties in the violence and are deeply suspicious of the authorities. Uzbek activists carried ballot boxes to villages where tens of thousands of displaced residents are camped.

Otunbayeva's government has struggled to maintain order since coming to power in Kyrgyzstan's second revolution in five years. The instability has caused alarm in the United States and Russia and raised questions about the future of a key U.S. air base in northern Kyrgyzstan that supplies NATO forces in Afghanistan.

The government's control of southern Kyrgyzstan, a Bakiyev stronghold, and the security forces there appears especially shaky. Many Uzbeks have accused local army and police units of tolerating and participating in the looting and slaughter in their neighborhoods.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe was considering a plan to send a neutral police force to the region to help defuse tensions, Otunbayeva said Sunday. "The interim government favors this idea and believes that participation of a third force in settling the conflict appears to be necessary," she said.

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