Kyrgyz army moves slowly to regain control over riot-hit south as refugees remain in limbo

By Sergei Grits, AP
Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Kyrgyz army tries to get control in riot-hit south

OSH, Kyrgyzstan — Kyrgyzstan’s weak and undersupplied military attempted Wednesday to regain control of the city of Osh, a major transit point for Afghan heroin and the epicenter of brutal rampages that have driven much of the ethnic Uzbek population from Kyrgyzstan’s poor, rural south.

Checkpoints circled the city and troops held the central square, but reports of looting by an army that lacks fuel and other basic supplies cast doubt on the government’s ability to re-establish stability and quell fresh outbreaks of violence.

The unrest — which erupted last Thursday in Osh between the majority Kyrgyz population and Uzbeks and spread to surrounding regions — has prompted more than 100,000 Uzbeks to flee for their lives to Uzbekistan, with tens of thousands more camped on the Kyrgyz side of the border or stranded in a no-man’s-land.

The United Nations has declared that the fighting was “orchestrated, targeted and well-planned,” and appeared to have begun with five simultaneous attacks in Osh by men wearing ski masks, but it stopped short of apportioning blame. It nevertheless bolstered claims by the interim Kyrgyz government that attackers hired by deposed President Kurmanbek Bakiyev marauded through Osh, shooting at both Kyrgyz and Uzbeks to inflame old tensions.

Some experts argue further that the violence could be rooted in the drug trade. Members of the Bakiyev clan had controlled the drug flow, but they lost their hold a week ago with the killing of the leader of an Uzbek criminal group, said Mars Sariyev, a political analyst in Bishkek.

The Bakiyev clan may have helped instigate the ethnic violence in an attempt both to weaken the interim government, which took over when Bakiyev was ousted in April in a bloody uprising, and to regain control over the drug flow, he said.

Humanitarian aid was trickling in via Uzbekistan, though some supplies coming into Osh were reportedly intercepted and volunteers attacked.

One of the few Uzbek families to remain in Osh told the Associated Press that a mother of two was killed by shrapnel from a shell launched toward their home by the Kyrgyz military.

“The Kyrgyz are out of control. They are destroying us,” said Abdumanap Mamasydykov, 38, at a funeral for the woman, his 48-year-old sister Gelbar Alynbayeba. They had remained in Dostyk, an Uzbek quarter of Osh, to tend to elderly relatives too frail to flee.

The claim that authorities were firing on Uzbeks could not be verified, but an AP photographer saw military patrols and heard artillery fire from their positions in central Osh overnight. No other armed units or groups had been seen.

Military trucks and armored personnel carriers were stationed on the central square, and at least five checkpoints had been established around the city, including along the road to the airport and other entry points. An APC and a dozen soldiers manned each post. Every few hours military trucks transported refugees out of the city.

The official death count from the past week of violence rose to 189 on Wednesday, with 1,910 wounded, the Health Ministry said. But observers believe the real toll is much higher, with many victims being buried quickly in keeping with Muslim tradition.

Meanwhile, thousands of ethnic Uzbeks were camped in squalid condition near the Uzbekistan border, waiting to cross and enter one of the dozens of refugee camps there. At a crossing near Jalal-Abad, frustration was mounting as several hundred who had made it into Uzbekistan tried to return to Kyrgyzstan but were refused re-entry.

In neighboring Kazakhstan, border guards were prohibiting ethnic Uzbeks from crossing from Kyrgyzstan and will deport some 200 ethnic Uzbeks who had crossed into Kazakhstan in recent days, Zaridjan Sultanov, an Uzbek leader in Bishkek, said.

Kazakh border officials were not immediately available for comment.

The U.N. has been delivering aid including bread through Uzbekistan, saying there was a lack of security along routes through Kyrgyzstan.

Kyrgyz authorities said some 160 tons of aid have been sent to Osh and Jalal-Abad — another city suffering serious damage in the rioting. But there were concerns about whether it was all reaching the needy.

Aid workers in Osh have received numerous threats of physical violence if they deliver aid to ethnic Uzbeks, human rights advocate Yelena Voronina told Internet-based news agency

One woman said Kyrgyz men in military uniform had stolen supplies from an aid center in central Osh. Munojat Tashbayeva, a 31-year-old sociologist, said the 20 or so men in uniform stormed a building where five sacks of flour had just been delivered and ordered her to get out, threatening to shoot her if she objected, before hauling the sacks away.

Uzbek community leader Jyldyz Joldosheva told that dozens of families have rushed to the aid center at an Osh hotel to receive food aid, mostly flour and vegetable oil.

The U.S. has allocated $10 million for humanitarian aid, the embassy in Bishkek said.

Both the U.S. and Moscow have air bases in the strategically located nation, but they are in the north, far from the rioting.

The West has urged Kyrgyzstan to forge ahead with a June 27 referendum on the constitution and parliamentary elections in October despite the violence.

Associated Press Writer Yuras Karmanau contributed to this report from Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.

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