- Associated Press - Wednesday, June 16, 2010

OSH, Kyrgyzstan | 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 ethnic Uzbeks have fled to Uzbekistan, with tens of thousands more camped on the Kyrgyz side of the border.

The interim Kyrgyz government has charged 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.

In Washington, the Obama administration announced that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has spoken with Kyrgyzstan’s leader to pledge U.S. assistance to help the country restore order and stabilize the situation over the longer term.

The State Department said Mrs. Clinton spoke by telephone on Wednesday with interim Kyrgyz President Roza Otunbayeva to discuss the former Soviet state’s immediate and long-term need for aid. A senior American diplomat is also heading to the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek for further consultations on Friday.

The U.S. Embassy in Bishkek said Washington has set aside $10.3 million in short-term and medium-term help. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said more than $6.5 million of that is for immediate humanitarian assistance.

Mr. Bakiyev was ousted in April in a bloody uprising fueled by anger over suspected corruption. Mars Sariyev, an independent political analyst in the capital, Bishkek, said members of the ousted president’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.

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. said. Kyrgyz officials have reported major seizures of heroin and opium in Osh in recent years.

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 with the leader of the Uzbek community in the Jalal-Abad region, according to 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. 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. 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. 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.

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.

Both the U.S. and Moscow have air bases in Kyrgyzstan, but they are in the north, far from the rioting. The United States and other Western governments have urged Kyrgyzstan to forge ahead with a June 27 referendum on the constitution and parliamentary elections in October despite the violence.

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