NARIMAN, Kyrgyzstan (AP) — Kyrgyz government forces swept into an ethnic Uzbek village Monday, beating men and women with rifle butts in an assault that left at least two dead and more than 20 wounded, witnesses told the Associated Press.
The allegations were among the strongest Uzbek claims of official collusion in ethnic rampages that killed as many as 2,000 people last week and forced nearly half of the region’s roughly 800,000 Uzbeks to flee.
The operation in the village of Nariman on the edge of the main southern city of Osh likely will discourage Uzbeks from returning and fuel tensions ahead of a crucial vote on a new constitution Sunday.
Kyrgyzstan’s interim president, Roza Otunbayeva, said the ethnic violence was triggered June 10 by supporters of former President Kurmanbek Bakiyev seeking to derail the constitutional vote. The United Nations, along with Washington and others, has backed the referendum strongly, a necessary step before parliamentary elections can be held in October.
The capital, Bishkek, also was tense Monday because of fears of new unrest before Sunday’s vote. By midafternoon most shopkeepers had packed up their wares and covered their store windows with metal shutters.
Residents trace the fears back to a tape released by the government weeks ago on which two men identified as Mr. Bakiyev’s son and brother are heard discussing plans for causing public unrest in Bishkek on June 22.
Kyrgyz authorities said they conducted the sweep in Nariman to track down suspected criminals who had taken refuge in the village. They said seven people were detained on suspicion of involvement in the killing of the head of the local police precinct a week ago.
They did not immediately comment on the Uzbek charges of violence and brutality, but released images of men lying face down on the ground in a courtyard as uniformed troops armed with assault rifles stood by.
Emil Kaptaganov, the interim government’s chief of staff, said that two people resisted and were killed and that 23 asked for medical assistance following the sweep in Nariman.
Aziza Abdirasulova of Kalym-Shaly, a respected human rights group based in the Kyrgyz capital, provided the same casualty count. She said she believed the mostly ethnic Kyrgyz police were taking revenge for the killing of their chief. “They were driven by revenge and were acting like wild animals,” she said.
Tensions long have existed between the two ethnic groups, both Sunni Muslims but speaking different Turkic languages. The Uzbeks, traditional farmers and traders, have been more prosperous than the Kyrgyz, who come from a nomadic background. In June 1990, hundreds were killed in a land dispute between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in Osh.
Nariman is a relatively wealthy village of single-story adobe houses right outside Osh, its big and affluent households surrounded by orchards and fields. A handful of ethnic Uzbek refugees from Osh fled to Nariman during the unrest, and the villagers put up three circles of barricades to stop attackers from entering.
Madina Umarova, a 45-year-old resident of Nariman, said the troops wore brand-new uniforms and beat dozens of people, two of them to death. She named the victims as Sharaf Dustmatov and Kobil Turgunov.
“In each house they would beat men and women with rifle butts,” Ms. Umarova said. “Soldiers set my passport on fire; they said we would not need them anymore.”
Another victim was 69-year-old Odiljon Turgunov, who died of cardiac arrest as soldiers yelled at his family, his daughter Sanobar Abdullaeva told the AP.
A funeral litter waited for his body at the entrance to his house for burial before sundown, according to Muslim rites.
Ethnic Uzbeks have accused security forces of standing by or even helping ethnic-majority Kyrgyz mobs as they slaughtered people and burned down neighborhoods. Military officials rejected allegations of troop involvement in the riots and said the army didn’t interfere in the conflict because it was not supposed to play the role of a police force.
Hundreds of thousands of Uzbeks remain in grim camps on both sides of the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border, fearing to come back despite shortages of food and water and bad sanitary conditions. Their reluctance to return could undermine Sunday’s referendum, seen as essential for the nation’s stability.
“Instead of calming people down, (the authorities) are just creating disturbances. Nobody will go back home now; the refugees are afraid,” said Mamyr Nizamov, head of an Uzbek council of elders in Osh. “When they come, the soldiers all say the same thing: that we have not earned our Kyrgyz citizenship, and then they tear up our passports.”
Another Nariman resident, Alik Umorov, showed a fresh wound on his head, saying that a policeman beat him, took his cell phone and all his cash, and stripped him of his passport.
“The officer beat me over the head with a metal rod,” Mr. Umorov said. “It’s not my fault that I’m an Uzbek.”
An AP photographer saw bloodstains on asphalt and floors, and smashed cars, windows and furniture in houses.
“They knocked my husband’s front teeth out. He’s in the hospital now,” Mukaddas Tuishieva, a 36-year-old housewife and a mother of three, said through tears. “If Kyrgyz soldiers are doing this to us, what am I going to tell my daughters? Where am I going to take them?”
While the provisional government badly needs the vote to anchor its authority, it’s facing strong opposition in the south.
The former police chief for the Osh region, Omurbek Suvanaliyev, harshly criticized the interim government’s push for the referendum, saying it could trigger another wave of ethnic violence.
“Tensions between the Kyrgyz and the Uzbek communities are high,” said Mr. Suvanaliyev, who resigned Sunday in protest against holding the referendum. “The referendum could lead to new clashes.”
Meanwhile, international aid continued arriving. The U.N. World Food Program delivered another planeload of aid to Osh, including food rations for 30,000 people.
Since the outbreak of violence, the WFP has provided an estimated 54,000 people in Osh and Jalal-Abad with food assistance. It said it was opening a humanitarian hub in Osh.
Yuras Karmanau reported from Bishkek, Kyrgystan. Associated Press writers Peter Leonard in Bishkek, Mansur Mirovalev in Moscow and Nicole Winfield in Rome contributed to this report.