BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan (AP) — A top U.S. envoy called Saturday for an independent investigation into the violence that has devastated southern Kyrgyzstan, as amateur video emerged of unarmed Uzbeks gathering to defend their town during the attacks.
Prosecutors on Saturday charged Azimzhan Askarov, the head of a prominent human rights group who shot the video, with inciting ethnic hatred. Askarov had accused the military of complicity in the bloody rampages that sent hundreds of thousands of Uzbeks fleeing for their lives.
The country’s rights ombudsman Tursunbek Akun insisted the charges against Askarov were fabricated, and activists in Bishkek demonstrated before U.N. offices to demand his release.
Valentina Gritsenko, head of the Justice rights organization, said she feared Askarov was being tortured. He was detained with his brother on Tuesday in his southern hometown of Bazar-Korgon, colleagues told The Associated Press.
Entire Uzbek neighborhoods in southern Kyrgyzstan have been reduced to scorched ruins by rampaging mobs of ethnic Kyrgyz who forced nearly half of the region’s roughly 800,000 Uzbeks to flee. Interim President Roza Otunbayeva says up to 2,000 people may have died in the clashes.
Kyrgyz authorities say the violence was sparked by supporters of ex-president Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who was toppled in April amid accusations of corruption. The U.N. has said the unrest appeared orchestrated, but has stopped short of assigning blame. Bakiyev, from exile, has denied any involvement.
Many ethnic Uzbeks also accused security forces of standing by or helping majority Kyrgyz mobs as they slaughtered Uzbeks and burned neighborhoods. Col. Iskander Ikramov, chief of the Kyrgyz military in the south, says the army didn’t interfere because it is not a police force.
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Robert Blake met with Otunbayeva in Bishkek, the capital, on Saturday after touring several packed refugee camps in neighboring Uzbekistan.
Blake said the interim government should probe the violence and “such an investigation should be complemented by an international investigation by a credible international body.”
He said the U.S. was working with the Kyrgyz government to make sure the refugees would be able to return home safely. The United States has released $32.2 million in aid, and Russia and France also sent planeloads of relief gear.
The Associated Press obtained Askarov’s video, which was shot June 13 at the height of the rampages. It shows a few dozen Uzbeks pacing nervously around a square in Bazar-Korgon, an ethnic Uzbek settlement, apparently before rioters descended. Armed with only sticks and stones, several men are seen heading across the square as gun shots ring out and smoke rises in background.
“Are we going to just sit around and wait for them?” one man says in Uzbek. In a different shot, a voice colleagues confirm as Askarov’s is heard saying “They’re getting close.”
“So many people have died over there. … One armed group is gone; there is still another which has stayed. They’re shooting from the direction of the prison, and Uzbeks have nothing but sticks one meter or half a meter long. There is smoke rising and I have no idea what’s left there,” Askarov says.
Destruction caused during the rampages was visible Saturday in parts of Bazar-Korgon, and Askarov’s office was one of several gutted buildings.
The United Nations estimates 400,000 people have fled their homes and about 100,000 of them have entered Uzbekistan.
Thousands of ethnic Uzbeks massed this week in VLKSM (Veh-L-Kah-S-M), a village near Kyrgyzstan’s main southern city of Osh. The village’s name is a Russian-language acronym for the Soviet Communist Youth League, leftover from when this Central Asian nation was a Soviet republic.
Red Cross spokesman Christian Cardon said agency workers distributed oil and wheat flower to 12,750 displaced people in VLKSM on Saturday and handed out supplies to 18,750 displaced in Suretapa.
“The situation is still quite tense, but we’re able to access all the places” where uprooted people have gathered, he said.
Employees from the Kyrgyz Red Crescent and ICRC workers monitor the distribution of aid, he said.
Many said they could not go back to their towns and live next to the people they accuse of attacking them.
“This is our nation, this is a holy land, but I can’t live here any more,” said Mukhabat Ergashova, a retiree who had taken shelter with dozens of others in a crowded tent.
“We are all witnesses to the fact that innocent citizens were fired upon from an armored personnel carrier by soldiers in military uniform. I don’t know whether they were from the government or some third party, but they only shot at Uzbeks,” said Sabir Khaidir, an ethnic Uzbek in Jalal-Abad.
Supplies of bread and rice from Uzbekistan kept the refugees from starvation. But many had to sleep in the open air, and overcrowding, bad sanitary conditions and a shortage of clean water were making many sick. Overwhelmed doctors struggled to treat outbreaks of diarrhea and other ailments with paltry medical supplies.
In Osh, the atmosphere remained tense, with barricades of burned out cars and debris blocking Uzbek neighborhoods. Otunbayeva, the interim leader, arrived Friday by helicopter in Osh’s central square in the hope of conveying a sign of stability.
“We have to give hope that we shall restore the city, return all the refugees and create all the conditions for that,” she said, wearing a bulletproof vest.
Goguelin was in Bazar-Korgon. Associated Press writer Peter Leonard in VLKSM, Kyrgyzstan, and Eliane Engeler in Geneva also contributed to this report.
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