Luke Harding /Guardian & Associated Press – 2010-06-14 23:13:19
MOSCOW & BISHKEK (June 14, 2010) — Kyrgyzstan was tonight in the grip of a humanitarian crisis after more than 100,000 minority Uzbeks, fleeing Kyrgyz mobs in the south of the country, gathered on the Uzbekistan border.
Uzbek community leaders said hundreds of Uzbeks had been slaughtered in five days of mob attacks, which began last Thursday in the city of Osh then spread rapidly to the nearby town of Jalal-Abad and other surrounding areas.
The official toll was put at 124 killed and more than 1,600 injured. But according to Associated Press at least 200 Uzbeks had already been buried. The Red Cross said its delegates saw about 100 bodies being buried in just one cemetery.
Much of Osh, the country’s second biggest city, was still burning, witnesses said today, with Uzbek areas razed to the ground, and homes, shops and supermarkets destroyed. Gunfire was reported in the Cheremushi district. Residents trying to flee the city were taken by helicopter to the airport.
The road to the city passes an Uzbek village, where residents, defending their homes from Kyrgyz mobs, were opening fire on vehicles. The situation in Jalal-Abad, which erupted in violence on Saturday remained tense, despite apparent negotiations between local Uzbek and Kyrgyz leaders.
Uzbek homes in the town’s Sputnik district were in flames, Kyrgyzstan’s AKIpress news agency reported. It said gangs of Kyrgyz youths were roaming from house to house looking for ethnic Uzbeks. Several had written on their arms: “If we see an Uzbek we will shoot him.” Witnesses said one gang seized the editor of the local Uzbek newspaper. There were also numerous kidnappings.
Jallahitdin Jililatdinov, head of the Uzbek National Centre, told AP that at least 100,000 Uzbeks fleeing the attacks were desperately trying to cross into Uzbekistan. Uzbekistan’s government tonight confirmed that 45,000 had made it across the border.
Hundreds of Uzbek refugees were also stuck in a no-man’s land at a border crossing near Jalal-Abad.
Russia, the UN and the US have begun a humanitarian relief operation, while Uzbekistan has started setting up camps for refugees. Several planes with WHO medical supplies arrived today at Osh airport. Witnesses said that most of those who fled were women, children and elderly people. Uzbekistan said many had gunshot wounds.
“Tent camps will be put up in the border between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan for many ethnic Uzbeks who have left their homes following riots in Osh,” said Kyrgyzstan’s ombudsman, Tursunbek Atun. He conceded that no temporary facilities had been built, and that some refugees were sleeping in the open at the Dostuk crossing, a few miles from Osh and its Uzbek suburbs.
Kyrgyzstan’s interim government, which took over after the president, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, was overthrown in April, has so far been powerless to stop the violence. Uzbeks have supported the new government while many in the south have backed the ousted Bakiyev. What began last month as a counter-revolution by disgruntled Bakiyev supporters quickly turned into ethnic cleansing.
The violence now threatens the stability of the whole central Asian region, with a full-blown conflict between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan a possibility. More immediately, if the interim government fails to reassert control over the south, Kyrgyzstan could split in half, or cease to exist as an independent state, experts suggest.
Over the weekend Russia turned down a plea by Kyrgyzstan’s interim leader, Roza Otunbayeva, to dispatch peace-keeping troops to Osh.
Today the Kremlin said it did not rule out a possible intervention. The statement followed a meeting in Moscow of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation, a Russian-dominated Nato-style security bloc made up of former Soviet republics.
The CSTO includes Russia, Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. “We have not ruled out using any means that the CSTO has at its disposal,” Russia’s national security chief, Nikolai Patrushev, said after the meeting, according to Interfax news agency.
Russia and the US each have military bases in north Kyrgyzstan. Russia sent in an extra battalion to protect its air base yesterday. The US air base at Manas is a vital supply hub for troops in Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, many Uzbeks are saying that Kyrgyz security forces and police had been complicit in “a deliberate genocide” against the Uzbek population. “Crowds of Kyrgyz are roaming around, they set our homes on fire and kill Uzbeks right in their houses,” Muhammed Askerov, a Jalal-Abad businessman, told Reuters by phone from an undisclosed village.
“Their slogan is Kyrgyzstan for Kyrgyz, and officials and police act hand-in-glove with them. But our ancestors were born here. Where should we go? Radio and television do not show the true picture — this is like a gruesome spectacle.”
Uzbeks make up 15% of Kyrgyzstan’s five million people, but in the south their numbers rival the ethnic Kyrgyz. The fertile Ferghana Valley, the location of Osh and Jalal-Abad, once belonged to a single feudal lord, but was split, by 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.
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