MOSCOW, JUNE 5 -- Authorities imposed a state of emergency in the Soviet Central Asian republic of Kirghizia today following ethnic clashes in the Moslem holy city of Osh in which at least 11 people were killed and more than 210 injured.
The latest surge of ethnic violence in the Soviet Union came as President Mikhail Gorbachev flew home from the United States after a summit meeting with President Bush. Nationalist tensions and growing economic chaos have now combined to confront the Soviet leader with one of the most serious crises here since he came to power in March 1985.
Soviet officials said sporadic clashes between Kirghiz and Uzbek inhabitants of Osh and internal security troops were continuing today following a night of violence in the area. Most of the deaths appear to have occurred Monday night after troops fired on crowds trying to storm the local police station.
Osh, an ancient Moslem pilgrimage city, lies on the fringe of the Fergana Valley region of Soviet Uzbekistan, which was the scene of bloody ethnic clashes last year in which more than 100 people died. The violence comes amid a resurgence of nationalist antagonisms in Central Asia, a desperate housing shortage, grinding poverty and centuries-old ethnic conflicts over the allocation of land and water.
The Soviet news agency Tass reported that a dispute over land allocation provided the spark for the flareup in Osh, a city of about 220,000 and the capital of southern Kirghizia. Tass said the clashes began in a field of a collective farm that has been the subject of rival claims by the Kirghiz and Uzbek communities for the construction of new apartments.
Attempts by Kirghiz government leaders to calm the crowd and separate the rival communities broke down when a large group of Kirghizians arrived on the scene at 6 p.m. Monday, Tass said. According to Soviet reports, the police fired in the air to keep the groups apart and were then attacked with stones and molotov cocktails.
"The crowd then set off for the center of the city, smashing cars, burning shops, kiosks, homes and means of transportation. Several attempts were made to attack buildings belonging to the Interior Ministry, including the interrogation department. The attacks were repulsed by guards on duty," the official Interfax news agency reported.
According to Interfax, most of the dead and injured had been hit by gunfire, and, apart from a policeman and an internal security soldier, all the dead were civilians.
The death toll in Soviet ethnic violence this year now stands at more than 340, higher than for all of last year. Last week alone, 24 people were killed in clashes between armed Armenian nationalists and Soviet troops in Yerevan, the Armenian capital.
In the past, Soviet authorities have blamed Moslem "troublemakers" for disturbances in Osh, which attracts tens of thousands of pilgrims every year. Soviet newspapers have accused Islamic activists of spreading rumors about the desecration of holy places and the torture of Kirghiz children by Russians. But there is no evidence that religion was a factor in the latest clashes.
Kirghizia's deputy interior minister, Felix Kulov, expressed concern that the situation in the region could get worse because rival groups of Uzbeks and Kirghizians were trying to reach Osh from neighboring regions. "We do not have enough troops to control the whole area," he told the Reuter news agency.
The Kremlin has increased the number of internal security troops to more than 40,000 over the past year to cope with the rise in ethnic violence around the country. Even so, commanders complain that they are stretched to the limit. At present, large contingents of troops are stationed in Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kirghizia.
Tass said that a 10 p.m.-to-6 a.m. curfew had been declared in Osh under emergency regulations adopted Monday by the Kirghizian government. It said government facilities were under heavy guard, use of private vehicles in the city had been sharply restricted and that at least 51 people had been arrested.
Like most other Soviet republics, Kirghizia is home to large ethnic minorities from other parts of the Soviet Union. Less than 50 percent of the republic's population is Kirghiz, with Uzbeks and Russians accounting for most of the remainder.