- Associated Press - Sunday, June 20, 2010

SURATASH, Kyrgyzstan | Thousands of ethnic Uzbeks massed on the border between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan refused to return home Sunday, saying they feared for their lives after violent pogroms and didn’t trust Kyrgyz troops to protect them.

Associated Press reporters saw some 50 Kyrgyz troops, many in armored transport carriers, enter the border village of Suratash and try to reassure refugees it was safe to return home.

Yet the soldiers’ presence terrified the families — ethnic Uzbeks who fled after attacks and arson by ethnic Kyrgyz — since they blame Kyrgyz troops for abetting the violence that left hundreds of Uzbeks dead and hundreds of thousands homeless.

“Of course we were afraid. Afraid because they were the ones — the soldiers who fired shots,” said Maplyuba Akhmedova, an Uzbek who fled her home.

In Sakaldy, another village in Kyrgyzstan, ethnic Uzbek men spent the night in a meadow near a barbed-wire fence that marks the border with Uzbekistan.

Entire Uzbek neighborhoods in southern Kyrgyzstan were 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 as many as 2,000 people may have died in the clashes.

Her government said the attacks were ignited by supporters of former 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. Mr. Bakiyev, from exile, has denied any involvement.

The United Nations estimates that 400,000 people have fled their homes in Kyrgyzstan, a Central Asian nation, and about 100,000 of them have entered Uzbekistan. There was no official estimate of the number of refugees in Suratash; Uzbeks said there were about 20,000.

In a phone conversation Sunday, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov discussed coordination of U.S. and Russian humanitarian assistance and other support to Kyrgyzstan to help authorities restore security, stability and reconciliation among all citizens of Kyrgyzstan, said State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley.

Many Uzbeks in Suratash said they would not return home and were unsure where to go. Some said they would try to sell their belongings and move to Russia, while others expressed a desire to go to Uzbekistan. However, there is no official border crossing in Suratash — 10 miles from the region’s main city of Osh — and many refugees lacked papers since they fled their homes in a rush.

Kyrgyzstan border officials said 5,000 refugees had returned home from Uzbekistan by Sunday.

“Refugees are beginning to return home more actively, but for now, fear and insecurity are hindering them,” said Kurmanakun Matenov, chief of Kyrgyzstan’s border guard.

Refugees say they are hungry and need drinkable water. In Suratash, a Red Cross/Red Crescent truck passed out fresh water Sunday morning, though the Uzbek refugees said they didn’t have enough food.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees announced Sunday that the first of two cargo planes carrying 80 tons of shelter materials and nonfood aid — enough to help 15,000 people — had arrived in Osh, the first such delivery to the devastated town.

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