By Hulkar Isamova, Reuters June 13, 2010 9:18 AM
Men walk past a burning building in the city of Osh in southern Kyrgyzstan June 11, 2010. At least 12 people were killed and 126 were wounded during the violence in southern Kyrgyzstan on Friday, the Health Ministry said.
Photograph by: Alexei Osokin, Reuters
OSH, Kyrgyzstan, June 13 (Reuters) – The worst ethnic clashes in Kyrgyzstan in 20 years spread at the weekend with armed gangs stepping up attacks that have killed at least 84 people and the ousted president warning the country faced collapse.
Witnesses saw bodies lying on the streets of the Central Asian republic’s second largest city Osh as houses and shops in an Uzbek neighbourhood burned for a third day.
Snipers fired at ethnic Uzbeks fleeing for the nearby border with Uzbekistan in fighting that has spread to the city of Jalalabad and surrounding villages.
"God help us! They are killing Uzbeks like animals. Almost the whole city is in flames," Dilmurad Ishanov, an ethnic Uzbek human rights worker, told Reuters by telephone from Osh.
The interim government of Kyrgyzstan, an ex-Soviet republic hosting U.S. and Russian military bases, has granted shoot-to-kill powers to its security forces in response to the deadly riots between ethnic Uzbeks and Kyrgyz in the two southern cities.
The Interior Ministry said it had sent a volunteer force to the south because the situation in the Osh and Jalalabad regions — strongholds of ousted president Kurmanbek Bakiyev — remained "complex and tense".
Renewed turmoil in Kyrgyzstan has fuelled concern in Russia, the United States and neighbour China. Washington uses an air base at Manas in the north of the country, about 300 km (190 miles) from Osh, to supply its forces in Afghanistan.
Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi said he believed 15 Pakistani citizens had been taken hostage and one killed in Osh. About 1,200 Pakistanis, mostly students, live in Kyrgyzstan, though many have returned home for summer holidays.
The new upsurge in violence has resulted in almost as many deaths as the riots that accompanied the overthrow of Bakiyev in April. Interim government leader Roza Otunbayeva has accused supports of Bakiyev, who is exiled in Belarus, of stoking ethnic conflict.
Bakiyev issued a statement from Minsk describing claims he was behind the clashes as "shameless lies".
"The Kyrgyz republic is on the verge of losing its statehood. People are dying and no one from the current authorities is in a position to protect them," he said.
Supporters of Bakiyev briefly seized government buildings in the south on May 13, defying central authorities. The Otunbayeva government has only limited control over the south, which is separated from the northern capital Bishkek by mountains.
Kyrgyzstan appealed on Saturday for Russian help in quelling the riots, which the Health Ministry says have killed 84 people — 75 in Osh and nine in Jalalabad — and wounded 1,122.
Retired builder Habibullah Khurulayev, 69, said he was afraid to leave his apartment in the besieged district of Osh. Uzbeks armed with hunting rifles manned improvised barricades to keep out Kyrgyz gangs with automatic rifles, he said.
The gangs had attacked a hospital 600 metres from his home, while pleas by Uzbeks for a military escort to the border 10 km (6 miles) away had been ignored, he said.
"They are killing us with impunity," he said. "The police are doing nothing. They are helping them kill us … There are not many of us left to shoot."
Ishanov said the fighting had spread into villages around Osh. In one settlement, smoke rose after prolonged gunfire.
In Jalalabad, gunmen shot at firefighters racing to a blaze at the Uzbek-run University of Friendship of Peoples, wounding a driver, Emergencies Ministry spokesman Sultan Mamatov said.
Russia has said it will not send in peacekeepers alone but would discuss the situation on Monday within a Moscow-led security bloc of former Soviet republics known as the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO).
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev was following the situation closely and had discussed it with the leaders of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, the two powers bordering Kyrgyzstan, the Kremlin said.
Kyrgyzstan’s interim defence minister Ismail Isakov renewed his government’s appeal to Moscow on Sunday, saying Russian special forces could end the conflict quickly.
The latest clashes are the worst ethnic violence in southern Kyrgyzstan since 1990, when then-Kremlin leader Mikhail Gorbachev sent Soviet troops into Osh after hundreds of people were killed in a dispute that started over land ownership.
Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan intertwine in the Fergana Valley. While Uzbeks make up 14.5 percent of the Kyrgyz population, the two groups are roughly equal in the Osh and Jalalabad regions.
Residents of Osh fled to the border with Uzbekistan on Saturday, and thousands of women and children made it across. But Uzbekistan closed the border overnight and some people have been unable to cross, said Cholponbek Turuzbekov, deputy commander of the Kyrgyz border service.
(Additional reporting by Olga Dzyubenko in Bishkek, Andrei Makhovsky in Minsk, Conor Humphries in Moscow and Robin Paxton in Almaty, Writing by Robin Paxton; editing by Noah Barkin)