- Associated Press - Wednesday, June 16, 2010

OSH, Kyrgyzstan (AP) — Kyrgyzstan’s weak military attempted Wednesday to regain control of the city of Osh, a major transit point for Afghan heroin and the epicenter of ethnic violence that has driven much of the Uzbek population from the country’s poor, rural south.

Troops encircled the city with checkpoints and held the central square, but citizens reported that some soldiers also were looting food aid, casting doubt on the government’s ability to re-establish stability after nearly a week of brutal attacks.

The leader of Kyrgyzstan’s Uzbek community said the death toll among Uzbeks exceeded 300. The official toll on both sides is 189, although officials have acknowledged it is likely far higher. More than 100,000 Uzbeks have fled to Uzbekistan, with tens of thousands more camped on the Kyrgyz side of the border.

The interim Kyrgyz government has claimed that attackers hired by deposed President Kurmanbek Bakiyev set off the bloodshed by shooting at both Kyrgyz and Uzbeks, who have a history of ethnic tensions. The United Nations bolstered the claims by declaring that the fighting was “targeted and well-planned,” and appeared to have begun with five simultaneous attacks in Osh by men wearing ski masks.

Mr. Bakiyev was ousted in April in a bloody uprising fueled by anger over purported corruption. Mars Sariyev, an independent political analyst in the capital, Bishkek, said members of Mr. Bakiyev’s family continued to control the drug trade in the Osh Knot, an area where Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan meet that is one of the most heavily used routes for Afghan heroin heading to Russia.

The drugs are transported by car and truck along a 400-mile-long highway that runs across the Pamir Mountains from Tajikistan’s porous border with Afghanistan to Osh, as well as along other smaller roads in southern Kyrgyzstan where borders are poorly controlled, according to the United Nations.

Much of the heroin is repackaged in Osh before being transported west to Uzbekistan and north to Kazakhstan and Russia by plane, train and land, the U.N. says. Kyrgyz officials have reported major seizures of heroin and opium in Osh in recent years.

U.N. and Kyrgyz officials also have noted an increased use of “mules,” individuals who carry the drugs in their stomachs or rectums, by consuming or inserting condoms filled with heroin.

Members of the Bakiyev clan lost their hold on the drug trade a week ago with the killing of the leader of an Uzbek criminal group who worked closely with them, Mr. Sariyev said. The reputed Uzbek criminal boss, Aibek Mirsidikov, was in a turf war against the leader of the Uzbek community in the Jalal-Abad region, the 24.kg news agency reported, citing an acting deputy prime minister, Azimbek Beknazarov.

The Bakiyevs may have helped instigate the ethnic violence in an attempt both to weaken the interim government and create a power vacuum that would help them regain control over the drug flow, Mr. Sariyev charged. He and other analysts also have said they believe that Mr. Bakiyev’s clan wanted to derail a constitutional referendum that the provisional government needs to gain legitimacy and pave the way for the parliamentary elections in the fall.

Mr. Bakiyev has denied having any role in the violence, speaking from his self-proclaimed exile in Belarus.

Uzbek leader Jalalidin Salahuddinov told the Associated Press on Wednesday that 300 deaths had been reported by members of his community who buried friends and relatives. Some were buried on the day they were killed in keeping with Muslim tradition. Mr. Salahuddinov said the number includes some Uzbeks already counted in the official toll.

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 armored patrol car and a dozen soldiers manned each post. Every few hours military trucks transported refugees out of the city.

The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said security in Osh remained fragile with violence persisting in pockets on the city’s edges. It said the Red Cross and rights organizations had trouble reaching some Uzbek neighborhoods, and voiced concern that humanitarian assistance was not reaching all of the population.

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

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