|Ethnic Uzbeks gathered near the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border in southern Kyrgyzstan yesterday to seek refuge from mobs of Kyrgyz men attacking the minority Uzbek community. (D. Dalton Bennett/Associated Press)|
Ethnic riots spread in Kyrgyzstan
Death toll rises to at least 77; hundreds hurt
OSH, Kyrgyzstan — Ethnic riots spread in southern Kyrgyzstan yesterday, forcing thousands of Uzbeks to flee as their homes were torched by roving mobs of Kyrgyz men. The interim government begged Russia for troops to stop the violence, but the Kremlin offered only humanitarian assistance.
At least 77 people were reported killed and more than 1,000 wounded in the violence spreading across the impoverished Central Asian nation that hosts US and Russian air bases.
Much of its second-largest city, Osh, was on fire yesterday and the sky overhead was black with smoke. Roving mobs of young Kyrgyz men armed with firearms and metal bars marched on minority Uzbek neighborhoods and set homes on fire, forcing thousands of Uzbeks to flee. Stores were looted and the city was running out of food.
Kyrgyzstan’s third straight day of rioting also engulfed another major southern city, Jalal-Abad, where a rampaging mob burned a university, besieged a police station, and seized an armored vehicle and other weapons from a local military unit.
“It’s a real war,’’ said local political leader Omurbek Suvanaliyev. “Everything is burning, and bodies are lying on the streets.’’
Those driven from their homes rushed toward the border with Uzbekistan, and children were trampled to death in the panicky stampede.
Crowds of frightened women and children made flimsy bridges out of planks and ladders to cross the ditches marking the border.
Interim President Roza Otunbayeva acknowledged that her government has lost control over Osh, a city of 250,000, even though it sent troops, armor and helicopters to quell the riots. Violence spread to the nearby city of Jalal-Abad later yesterday.
“The situation in the Osh region has spun out of control,’’ Otunbayeva told reporters. “Attempts to establish a dialogue have failed, and fighting and rampages are continuing. We need outside forces to quell confrontation.’’
Otunbayeva asked Russia early yesterday to send in troops, but the Kremlin said it would not meddle into what it described as Kyrgyzstan’s internal conflict.
“It’s a domestic conflict, and Russia now doesn’t see conditions for taking part in its settlement,’’ Kremlin spokeswoman Natalya Timakova said in Moscow.
She added that Russia will discuss with other members of a security pact of ex-Soviet nations about the possibility of sending a joint peacekeeping force to Kyrgyzstan.
Timakova said Russia would send a plane to Kyrgyzstan to deliver humanitarian supplies and help evacuate victims of the violence.
Russia has about 500 troops at a base in Kyrgyzstan, mostly air force personnel. The United States has the Manas air base in the capital, Bishkek, a crucial supply hub for the coalition fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Kyrgyzstan’s interim government spokesman, Farid Niyazov, refused to say whether the country would turn to the United States for military help after Russia had refused. “Russia is our main strategic partner,’’ he said.
In Washington, Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said he was unaware of any requests for help by Kyrgyzstan.
The riots are the worst violence since former President Kurmanbek Bakiyev was toppled in a bloody uprising in April and fled the country.
The violence is a crucial test of the interim government’s ability to control the country, hold a June 27 vote on a new constitution and go ahead with new parliamentary elections scheduled for October.
Otunbayeva yesterday blamed Bakiyev’s family for instigating the unrest in Osh, saying they aimed to derail the constitutional referendum.
Maksat Zheinbekov, the acting mayor of Jalal-Abad, said in a telephone interview that Bakiyev’s supporters in his home region started the riots by attacking both Uzbek and Kyrgyz.
Ethnic tensions have long simmered in the Ferghana Valley, split by Soviet dictator Josef Stalin’s whimsically carved borders among Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan.
In 1990, hundreds of people were killed in a violent land dispute between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in Osh, and only the quick deployment of Soviet troops quelled the fighting. Both ethnic groups are predominantly Sunni Muslim.
Moscow has competed with Washington for influence in strategically placed Central Asia and pushed for the withdrawal of the US base in Kyrgyzstan.
But the Kremlin’s refusal to send troops indicated that it’s much more reluctant to get involved in the turbulent region’s affairs than its assertive policy statements had suggested.
The official casualty toll yesterday rose to at least 77 people dead and 1,024 wounded, the Health Ministry said. The real figures may be much higher, because doctors and human rights workers said ethnic Uzbeks were too afraid to seek hospital treatment.
Witnesses said that many bodies were lying in the streets of Osh and more were scattered inside the burned buildings.
The International Committee of the Red Cross said it had received reports of tens of thousands people fleeing the fighting and looting.