BISHKEK // A shattered Kyrgyzstan started three days of national mourning for nearly 180 killed in ethnic violence as a US envoy was due in the region to deal with a growing humanitarian crisis. Neighbouring Uzbekistan received more than 75,000 refugees from the fighting between ethnic Uzbeks and Kyrgyz but is now only accepting sick and wounded refugees, leaving thousands desperate to flee marooned on the border.
A plane carrying the first foreign aid for refugees arrived in the eastern Uzbek city of Andijan, local officials said. An uneasy calm was pervading today over the southern Kyrgyz cities of Osh and Jalalabad - where many areas have been reduced to ruins by the fighting - but artillery fire overnight in Osh underlined the tensions. Authorities in Osh began cleaning up streets hauling away burnt-out skeletons of cars as basic foodstuffs like vegetables, butter and bread were being sold from trucks around the city amid a massive military presence in and around the city, a correspondent in the city reported.
Concerned about a shortage of goods and drinking water in Osh, its residents were queuing up outside the stores which were also guarded by armed soldiers. Military checkpoints were set up all over the city manned by heavily-armed soldiers who stopped and checked cars. Flags flew at half-mast across the country as authorities cancelled entertainment programming on national television and the capital Bishkek was preparing to bury several policemen who died in the rioting.
Late last week simmering inter-ethnic tensions in the south of the Central Asian state exploded into violent bloodletting, sparking a refugee exodus of tens of thousands of ethnic Uzbeks, who have accused government forces of helping Kyrgyz mobs in their deadly rampage. With the full impact of the humanitarian crisis becoming clear, Robert Blake, the top US diplomat for the region, was to visit the Uzbek capital Tashkent today and then the Ferghana Valley on the Kyrgyz border.
Mr Blake will "be able to see firsthand the current situation involving individuals who have crossed over the border between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan and evaluate directly the humanitarian situation there," state department spokesman Philip Crowley said. Under orders from US secretary of state Hillary Clinton, Mr Blake "will be in Bishkek on Friday and Saturday for direct consultations with the Kyrgyz government," Mr Crowley said.
"There is in fact an emerging humanitarian crisis in Kyrgyzstan and we are prepared to respond further to that," the spokesman added. Amnesty International urged all Kyrgyzstan's neighbours to open their borders to those seeking refuge, saying that there was now an "urgent" need to provide humanitarian assistance. Authorities in Osh and Jalalabad said they would start collecting firearms from the population, warning they would have to confiscate them by force if residents do not give them up volantarily.
"Pockets of conflict still remain in Jalalabad but there are no more mass clashes and riots," the regional commandant's office said. Today, the army appeared to move forces into Jalalabad to secure the city. According to the most latest casualty toll, at least of 179 people have been killed and around 2,000 injured in ethnic clashes in the south of the country. The country's health ministry said the number of deaths from the clashes could be higher as many families were choosing to bury their dead bypassing official morgues.
The riots were the worst inter-ethnic clashes to hit the impoverished Central Asian state since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Uzbeks make up 14 per cent of Kyrgyzstan's population of 5.3 million. Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev sent troops to Osh after hundreds of people were killed in similar riots in the 1990s. Both Osh and Jalalabad are part of the Ferghana Valley, a tinderbox region where a mixture of historic animosities and inter-ethnic rivalries have the potential to destabilise the entire Central Asia, analysts say.