OSH, Kyrgyzstan (AP) — Rioting has killed at least several hundred people in the Central Asian nation of Kyrgyzstan, the Red Cross said Tuesday, as new reports strengthened suspicions that the violence was deliberately ignited to undermine the interim government.
The southern part of this impoverished Central Asian nation has been convulsed by days of rioting targeting minority Uzbeks, which has left the country’s second-largest city, Osh, in smoldering ruins and sent more than 100,000 Uzbeks fleeing for their lives to neighboring Uzbekistan.
The International Committee of the Red Cross had no precise figure of the dead, but spokesman Christian Cardon said, “We are talking about several hundreds.” That figure is significantly higher than the current official estimate.
Uzbekistan closed the border Tuesday, leaving many camped out on the Kyrgyz side or stranded behind barbed-wire fences in a no man’s land.
Kyrgyzstan’s interim government, which took over when former President Kurmanbek Bakiyev was ousted in an April uprising, has accused Mr. Bakiyev’s family of instigating the violence to halt a June 27 referendum on a new constitution. Uzbeks mostly have backed the interim government, while many Kyrgyz in the south have supported Mr. Bakiyev. From self-imposed exile in Belarus, Mr. Bakiyev has denied any ties to the violence.
Interim President Roza Otunbayeva insisted again Tuesday that Bakiyev supporters stoked the conflict.
“Many instigators have been detained, and they are giving evidence on Bakiyev’s involvement in the events. No one has doubts that he is involved,” she said.
Rupert Colville, spokesman for the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, told reporters in Geneva there was evidence the violence was coordinated and began with five simultaneous attacks in Osh by men wearing ski masks. Navi Pillay, the high commissioner, also said the fighting “appears to be orchestrated, targeted and well-planned” and urged authorities to act before it spread further.
Kyrgyz deputy security chief Kubat Baibalov said Tuesday that a trained group of men from neighboring Tajikistan drove around in a car with tinted windows and opened fire on both Uzbeks and Kyrgyz in Osh last week to spark violence between the two groups.
“They were employed by people close to the Bakiyev family who have been expelled from power,” Mr. Baibalov said. He gave no further details.
The government said earlier that suspects from Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Kyrgyzstan had been detained and told authorities they were hired by Bakiyev supporters to start the rioting.
Mr. Bakiyev’s younger son, Maxim, was arrested Monday in Britain, Kyrgyz security chief Kenishbek Duishebayev said. Prosecutors allege that companies he owned avoided almost $80 million in taxes on aviation fuel sold to suppliers of the U.S. air base near the capital of Bishkek. Mr. Bakiyev’s regime faced widespread allegations of corruption.
The region around Osh also is known as a key hub for drugs flowing out of Afghanistan.
The United Nations and the European Union, meanwhile, urged Kyrgyzstan not to let the ethnic violence derail a June 27 constitutional referendum and parliamentary elections scheduled for October.
“The referendum and the elections must be held at the announced times” so Kyrgyzstan moves further toward democracy, U.N. representative Miroslav Jenca said in Bishkek. The European Union backs this position, according to Germany’s ambassador to Kyrgyzstan, Holger Green.
Yet the scale of the damage was so vast in the south it was hard to see how a legitimate vote could be held in less than two weeks. Up to 200,000 people have fled violence within Kyrgyzstan just since Thursday, U.N. refugee agency spokesman Andrej Mahecic said in Geneva.
In just 10 minutes Tuesday, an AP photographer in the southern town of Nariman, near Osh, saw 10 buses and trucks filled with Uzbek refugees heading toward the border.
At a Nariman hospital, dozens of wounded Uzbeks lay in corridors and broken beds. Many at the hospital, which was out of medical supplies for a sixth day, claimed the rampages were premeditated.
“Well-armed people who were obviously well prepared for this conflict were shooting at us,” said Teymurat Yuldashev, 26, who had bullet wounds in his arm and chest of different caliber. “They were organized, with weapons, militants and snipers. They simply destroyed us.”
Deadly rampages in the country’s south began late Thursday as mobs of ethnic Kyrgyz torched homes and businesses of ethnic Uzbeks. Many sections of Osh, a city of 250,000, have burned to the ground since then, and the rampages have spread into surrounding towns and regions.
Tens of thousands of Uzbeks are now in makeshift accommodations in 30 different refugee camps in Uzbekistan. Several camps were centered in the eastern city of Andijan.
Several thousand refugees were waiting in squalid conditions Tuesday near one border crossing on the Kyrgyz side some three miles from Osh, with more people arriving by the hour.
Early Tuesday, heavy rainstorms soaked makeshift tents made from carpets and people’s few possessions, and the air filled with the sound of crying women and children.
“There is no humanitarian assistance, no water. This is worse than living like an animal,” said Fedya Okramov, 21, one of 10 family members who had taken refuge under a tree.
The ICRC said Uzbekistan was overwhelmed by the flood of refugees, which far has exceeded the 30,000 that were expected. The number being let through has slowed in recent days, and Uzbekistan closed its borders Tuesday. It was unclear whether it would be reopened.
Clashes continued in and around Osh on Tuesday, regional police Chief Omurbek Suvanaliyev told the Associated Press.
Interior Ministry troops were patrolling the nearby city of Jalal-Abad, but city spokeswoman Klaya Tapkeyeva said she did not consider the town safe.
The Health Ministry on Tuesday said the death toll from the clashes has reached 171, with nearly 1,800 injured. But Ms. Otunbayeva acknowledged that the number of dead had to be higher because of the Muslim tradition of burying the dead the same day.
In addition, many Uzbek refugees arrived in Uzbekistan with gunshot wounds and said they were shot at by snipers as they tried to escape the violence.
Yuras Karmanau reported from Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, from which Associated Press reporter Leila Saralayeva also contributed.
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