100,000 Uzbek refugees flee to border to escape purge in Kyrgzystan; US, others send aid

By Sasha Merkushev, AP
Monday, June 14, 2010

100,000 Uzbek refugees seek safety at border

OSH, Kyrgyzstan — Some 100,000 minority Uzbeks fleeing a purge by mobs of Kyrgyz massed at the border Monday, an Uzbek leader said, as the deadliest ethnic violence to hit this Central Asian nation in decades left a major city smoldering.

With fires raging in the southern city of Osh for a fourth day Monday, the official death toll of 124 killed and nearly 1,500 injured from the clashes that began Thursday appeared way too low.

An Uzbek community leader claimed at least 200 Uzbeks alone had already been buried, and the Red Cross said its delegates saw about 100 bodies being buried in just one cemetery.

The United States, Russia and the United Nations worked on humanitarian aid airlifts while neighboring Uzbekistan hastily set up camps to handle the flood of hungry, frightened refugees. Most were women, children and the elderly, many of whom Uzbekistan said had gunshot wounds.

The interim government, which took over after former President Kurmanbek Bakiyev was ousted by a mass revolt in April, has been unable to stop the violence and accused Bakiyev’s family of instigating it to halt a June 27 vote. Uzbeks have backed the interim government, while many Kyrgyz in the south have supported the toppled president.

The government said Monday it had arrested a “well-known person” suspected of stoking the violence, but gave no further details. Suspects from Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Kyrgyzstan were also detained and claimed to have been hired by supporters of Bakiyev, government spokesman Farid Niyazov said.

The interim government had planned a referendum to approve a new constitution on June 27, but it now appears unlikely the vote will take place. New parliamentary elections are scheduled for October, but the violence appears aimed at undermining the interim government before then.

From his self-imposed exile in Belarus, Bakiyev has denied any role in the violence.

Jallahitdin Jalilatdinov, who heads the Uzbek National Center, told The Associated Press on Monday that at least 100,000 Uzbeks were awaiting entry into Uzbekistan, while another 80,000 had already crossed over the border.

An AP reporter saw hundreds of Uzbek refugees stuck in no-man’s-land at a border crossing near Jalal-Abad, while an AP photographer saw hundreds of refugees in a camp on the Uzbek side.

Desperate refugee women grabbed loaves of flat bread handed out by aid workers amid the chaos.

New fires raged Monday across Osh — the country’s second-largest city — which is 3 miles (5 kilometers) from the border with Uzbekistan. Food and water were scarce as armed looters smashed stores, stealing everything from televisions to food. Cars stolen from ethnic Uzbeks raced around the city, most crowded with young Kyrgyz wielding sharpened sticks, axes and metal rods.

In the mainly Uzbek district of Aravanskoe, an area formerly brimming with shops and restaurants, entire streets were burned to the ground. In one still-smoldering building, an AP photographer saw the charred bodies of three people.

No police or troops were seen on the streets of the city of 250,000.

Hundreds of residents gathered at Osh’s central square Monday seeking to get on buses heading to the airport. Gunman have made the road from the city to the airport too dangerous to tackle alone.

Osh police chief Kursan Asanov told the AP that 950 foreigners — mostly Russians, Pakistanis, Indians and Africans — have been evacuated since disturbances began, as well as residents who were Uzbek and Kyrgyz.

“The entire city is in the state of panic — you see for yourselves — because all people have children,” said Osh resident Galina Nikolayevna.

Mukaddas Jamolova, a 54-year old housewife from Kara-Su, near Osh, said she saw looters burn down many Uzbek homes. She said her house was not burned down but the family can’t flee to Uzbekistan as they fear armed attackers.

“We can’t go anywhere, we have a curfew, nobody’s letting us out,” Jamolova told The Associated Press on the phone.

In another city beset by violence, Jalal-Abad, 25 miles (40 kilometers) from Osh, armed Kyrgyz amassed at the central square to hunt down an Uzbek community leader who they blame for starting the trouble.

At a mosque in the village of Sura-Tash, ethnic Uzbeks converted a mosque into a makeshift hospital. Using the most rudimentary supplies, health workers treated anyone who came by for with wounds from beatings at the hands of Kyrgyz, or ordinary medical issues like heat exhaustion and diabetes.

Some took shade in the mosque, but hundreds were forced to wait outside in the sun.

Vodka was used to sterilize medical equipment and powdered plaster was melted down to turn into casts for broken limbs.

One doctor said those who attacked Uzbeks seemed to have the support of the Kyrgyz military.

“Many people have died, snipers fired from more than one kilometer away, and organized gangs followed the military as they drove in with armored personnel carriers,” said Lutsalla Khakimov, a doctor working at the mosque. “This was organized, they wanted to start a war.”

Some victims said they had been raped.

As the clashes continued, desperately needed aid began trickling into the south. Several planes arrived at Osh airport with tons of medical supplies from the World Health Organization. Trucks carried the supplies into the city with an armed escort.

The U.S. had a shipment of tents, cots and medical supplies ready to fly to Osh from its Manas air base in Bishkek, the U.S. Embassy said.

The U.S. and Russia both have military bases in northern Kyrgyzstan, away from the rioting. Russia sent in an extra battalion to protect its air base. The U.S. Manas air base is a crucial supply hub for the coalition fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Uzbeks make up 15 percent of Kyrgyzstan’s 5 million people, but in the south their numbers rival ethnic Kyrgyz. The fertile Ferghana Valley, where Osh and Jalal-Abad are located, once belonged to a single feudal lord, but was split by Soviet dictator Josef Stalin among Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, rekindling old rivalries.

In 1990, hundreds were killed in a land dispute between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in Osh, and only the quick deployment of Soviet troops quelled the fighting. Russia over the weekend refused a request by the interim government to send troops into Kyrgyzstan, so the government began a partial mobilization of military reservists.

“No one is rushing to help us, so we need to establish order ourselves,” said Talaaibek Adibayev, a 39-year-old army veteran who showed up at Bishkek’s military conscription office.


Karmanau reported from Bishkek, where Associated Press writer Leila Saralayeva contributed. D. Dalton Bennett in Osh, Kyrgyzstan, and Mansur Mirovalev in Moscow also contributed.

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