x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Uzbeks flee bloodshed in Kyrgyzstan

The country's worst ethnic violence in two decades may create a crisis in Uzbekistan as 75,000 adult refugees cross the border.

Uzbeks prepare graves for the victims of the attacks on the ethnic Uzbek communities in the city of Osh, Kyrgyzstan.
Uzbeks prepare graves for the victims of the attacks on the ethnic Uzbek communities in the city of Osh, Kyrgyzstan.

Tens of thousands of ethnic Uzbeks fled Kyrgyzstan yesterday as violence spread across the country's southern region, raising the death toll to more than 100. The interim government's shoot-to-kill order appeared to do little to quell the violence that has raged for three days. Yesterday, authorities declared a state of emergency for the entire Jalal-Abad province as clashes spread from Osh, a city of 250,000 people where Uzbek neighbourhoods have been burning since Thursday.

The government has called in reserve troops and volunteers in a bid to stop the country's worst ethnic violence in two decades. There was hardly any sign that the government was making progress in bringing the situation under control in Osh, said Andrea Berg, a Human Rights Watch researcher who was in the city when the violence erupted. "The situation here is still very tense," Ms Berg said in a telephone interview yesterday. "Driving through the city you can see burnt out cars everywhere."

The state of emergency was extended "in connection with the ongoing clashes taking place in Jalal-Abad, in the interest of public safety and for the speedy normalisation and establishment of public order", the government said in a statement. The violence has created a possible refugee crisis in neighbouring Uzbekistan, where thousands fled in panic after their homes were torched by roving mobs of Kyrgyz men.

Emergency officials in Uzbekistan said 75,000 adult refugees have crossed the border. The emergencies ministry was quoted as saying by the RIA Novosti news agency that most of the refugees are elderly people, women and children and many have gunshot wounds. It said that camps were being set up for them in several areas of Uzbekistan. In the southern village of Suzak, 30 people were killed by Kyrgyz mobs, according to a senior military official.

The health ministry said the official death toll is at least 97 dead and 1,243 wounded. Those figures did not include the 30 people killed in Suzak. Doctors say even that toll is far too low because wounded minority Uzbeks are too afraid of being attacked again to go to hospitals. A 15-year-old Pakistani student was killed in the violence and 15 were taken hostage, according to Shah Mehmood Qureshi, the Pakistani foreign minister.

Roza Otunbayeva, who leads the interim government, asked Russia on Saturday to send peacekeepers to help restore order in the Central Asia nation. Kyrgyzstan's interim defence minister, Ismail Isakov, renewed his government's appeal to Moscow yesterday, saying Russian special forces could resolve the conflict quickly, Interfax news agency reported. Russia has said it will not send in peacekeepers, but did deploy about 300 paratroopers to reinforce security at its military base in the country, Interfax reported. Russia planned to discuss the situation today within a Moscow-led security bloc of former Soviet republics known as the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO).

The country of 5.5 million people, of which almost one million are ethnic Uzbeks, is home to both a Russian and US military bases. The US base, Manas, is a key transition point for US-led coalition forces being deployed in Afghanistan. Ms Otunbayeva has blamed the violence on the former president Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who was ousted in April after a coup that left more than 80 people dead. She said Mr Bakiyev's family instigated the unrest in Osh, saying they aimed to derail a constitutional referendum to be held on June 27 and new elections scheduled for October. A local southern official said Bakiyev supporters attacked both Kyrgyz and Uzbeks to ignite the rioting.

Mr Bakiyev who is in exile in Minsk, denied yesterday any involvement in the violence, saying the accusations were "shameless lies" and the interim government was proving incapable of quelling the unrest. * With additional reporting by Carl Schreck in Moscow, Associated Press, Reuters and Agence France-Presse @Email:foreign.desk@thenational.ae