Ethnic unrest in Kyrgyzstan escalates as death toll rises to over 100

Mon 14 Jun 2010

Ethnic unrest in Kyrgyzstan escalates as death toll rises to over 100

Ethnic unrest continues in Kyrgyzstan's southern cities of Osh and Jalal-Abad between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbek groups. The Kyrgyz Health Ministry has reported that at least 113 people have been killed – 92 in Osh and 21 in Jalal-Abad – and more than 1,400 injured in the past three days of violence. Tens of thousands of members of the Uzbek minority are reported to have fled their homes to escape attacks by Kyrgyz gangs, who have been accused of slaughters and setting fire to Uzbek-operated properties.

Rights activists have alleged that Kyrgyz authorities and security forces have not been taking decisive enough action to halt the violence. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has warned that the humanitarian situation in southern Kyrgyzstan is becoming "critical" following days of arson, killing and clashes. International journalists reported from Osh on 13 June that fires continued in some areas of the city and several government buildings had burned.

Worst clashes since April
The clashes have produced the worst ethnic violence to hit southern Kyrgyzstan since former President Kurmanbek Bakiyev was toppled in a bloody uprising last April, although it is not clear what sparked the latest unrest. The fighting broke out between rival gangs and developed into gun battles late on Thursday (10 June). It subsequently spread from Osh to the neighbouring city of Jalal-Abad, with international officials saying that without international assistance, there are fears the interim authorities will struggle to contain the conflict.

Ethnic Uzbeks make up some 14 percent of the total Kyrgyz population. But they make up roughly one-third of inhabitants in the Osh and Jalal-Abad regions. While the Uzbeks largely back the interim government, many Kyrgyz in the south support ousted president Kurmanbek Bakiyev and his clan.

No peacekeepers from Russia

The interim government has appealed for Russian help in suppressing the ethnic riots, but Moscow has said it will not send in peacekeepers alone. It has pledged to discuss the situation on 14 June within the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a bloc of former Soviet republics. Russian and Kyrgyz media reported, however, that Moscow has deployed a reinforced battalion of 150 paratroopers to Kyrgyzstan. An unidentified Russian Defense Ministry official told media that the battalion would "reinforce the defense of Russian military facilities and ensure the security of Russian military servicemen and their families." Russia has about 500 troops at a base in Kyrgyzstan.

Humanitarian emergency
Kyrgyz neighbour Uzbekistan has set up makeshift camps along its border with Kyrgyzstan to take in the refugees, most of them women and children. "Currently, it is very difficult for me to give the exact figures. They speak about thousands of refugees now," Anna Nelson, representative of the ICRC mission in Kyrgyzstan, told international media. In a written statement, the Red Cross said its representatives in southern Kyrgyzstan have received "reports of severe brutality, with an intent to kill and harm." It said the Kyrgyz authorities are "completely overwhelmed, as are the emergency services."

International community concerned
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has reportedly expressed concern over the escalating violence in a telephone call to the Foreign Minister of neighbouring Kazakhstan, which currently holds the chairmanship of the OSCE. Also, senior EU officials have expressed their mounting concern at the ethnic clashes, with the European Commission deciding to dispatch an expert to the country to assess humanitarian needs. "We are monitoring the evolution of the events and, if need be, the EU stands ready to mobilise humanitarian funds at short notice", said the EU's crisis response commissioner Kristalina Georgieva over the weekend.

Interim President Roza Otunbaeva has acknowledged that her government lost control over Osh despite sending troops, armour, and helicopters. The government has also given police and soldiers shoot-to-kill power. She has accused former President Kurmanbek Bakiyev and his relatives of instigating the unrest in Osh and of seeking to derail a constitutional referendum to be held 27 June. Speaking from his exile in Belarus on 13 June, Bakiyev rejected the accusations as "shameless lies" and blamed the interim government for failing to quell the unrest.

Watch the video of the ethnic violence in Kyrgyzstan.

Sources: RFE/RL; EU Observer; Volkskrant (Dutch); YouTube