- Associated Press - Friday, June 18, 2010

OSH, Kyrgyzstan (AP) — Kyrgyzstan’s interim president said Friday that 2,000 people may have died in the ethnic clashes that have rocked the country’s south — many times her government’s official estimate — as she made her first visit to a riot-hit city since the unrest erupted.

The deputy head of the provisional government, Azimbek Beknazarov, put the official death toll on both sides at 223 on Thursday, but others said the figure could be significantly higher. The deaths have been due to rampages led mainly by ethnic Kyrgyz against Uzbeks.

“I would increase by 10 times the official data on the number of people killed,” Interim President Roza Otunbayeva said, according to her spokesman, Farid Niyazov. She said current figures don’t take into account those buried before sundown on the day of death in keeping with Muslim tradition, according to the spokesman.

There was no indication of whether a comprehensive body count was conducted, but Ms. Otunbayeva’s estimate appeared credible. Official counts have been solely on deaths registered at major hospitals, but accounts from ethnic Uzbeks say several hundred people have died.

“It is closer to this figure” of 2,000, Mr. Niyazov said.

The United Nations said that as many as 1 million people may eventually need aid in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, including the refugees, internally displaced, host families and others who may suffer from the unrest.

UNICEF spokeswoman Christiane Berthiaume said the figure was an estimate to help aid agencies plan. She says the actual number of people in need may turn out to be higher or lower.

The aid agencies say those uprooted by the unrest most urgently need food, water, medicine and shelter.

The U.N.’s aid airlift into Kyrgyzstan was scheduled to begin this weekend. Two chartered Ilyushin-76 cargo planes carrying 80 tons of relief items are expected to arrive in Osh.

Meanwhile, the sixth flight into Uzbekistan is expected to land at Andijan, Uzbekistan, later Friday, completing the initial load of some 240 tons of relief supplies.

Otunbayeva arrived early Friday by helicopter in the central square of Osh, a city of 250,000 where the violence began last week. Parts of the city have been reduced to rubble by mobs of young Kyrgyz men who burned down Uzbek homes and attacked Uzbek businesses.

The United Nations estimates that 400,000 people fled the country’s south.

“We have to give hope that we shall restore the city, return all the refugees and create all the conditions for that,” Otunbayeva said.

She said good will between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks would end hostilities.

Up to 100,000 people have crossed the border into Uzbekistan, where they are getting food and water in camps. Thousands more remain camped in squalid conditions on the Kyrgyz side of the border, unable to cross due to Uzbek restrictions. Over the past few days, Uzbek border guards have placed quilted blankets over barbed wire at the border to allow refugees in Uzbekistan to return.

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