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.
Mr. Tashbayeva said she saw how the assailants beat up several teenagers who had helped unload the cargo and took the flour away. One of the teenagers, 18-year-old Shokhrukh Sobirov, had a severe cranial wound and was left lying on the floor, his head bleeding.
The violence reduced much of Osh to charred rubble. Roving mobs of young Kyrgyz men burned down Uzbek homes and attacked Uzbek-owned businesses, looting them and then setting them on fire. Some Uzbeks who remained in Osh built barricades around their homes from felled trees and fences ripped up from a cemetery.
The letters SOS have been painted in white on streets and walls in Uzbek neighborhoods.
Mr. Salahuddinov said an Uzbek man had been stabbed to death in a market Wednesday and people still feared leaving their basements to receive aid.
"If they don't kill us, we could die of hunger if the situation doesn't change in the next few days," he told the AP.
An AP photographer saw military patrols and heard artillery fire from their positions in central Osh overnight. 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 before dawn.
A few stores opened in Osh, but the streets were mostly empty and sporadic shots were heard. The military said that snipers remained active in the city.
Thousands of ethnic Uzbeks were camped in squalid conditions near the Uzbekistan border, waiting to cross and enter one of the dozens of refugee camps there.
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, said Zaridjan Sultanov, an Uzbek leader in Bishkek.
Kazakh border officials were not immediately available for comment.
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.
Svetlana Permyakova, an ethnic Russian resident of Osh, said the supplies she and her neighbors received were "dismal."
She said the 63 residents of an apartment building in southern part of Osh received a total of several pounds of rice and macaroni, a bottle of vegetable oil and one flat bread per person.
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 Kyrgyzstan, 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 writers Yuras Karmanau in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan; Romain Goguelin in Jalal-Abad, Kyrgyzstan; and Alexander Zemlianichenko in Osh contributed to this report.